Starring-Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyo
Scott’s Review #1,147
Reviewed May 31, 2021
Kenji Mizoguchi, who directs the brave Japanese masterpiece, Ugetsu (1953), successfully brought eastern cinema to western audiences at the time the film was discovered. The result is a groundbreaking ghost story that fuses reality with the supernatural in the most gorgeous ways.
It’s not always clear what is going on but in only the best of ways. It’s like being inside a dream.
The notice is a long time coming since Mizoguchi had been making films since the 1920s! But his forever stamp on cinema is worth the wait and Ugetsu is a timeless treasure.
Ugetsu is not the easiest plot to follow but that is just fine because its brilliance lies in other areas. Like, every area to be clear. The cinematography, the mix of reality and supernatural, the tone, and the questioning messages and character conflict all add muscle.
It’s cinema to be experienced and mesmerized by. Haunting, sad, and stoic, it explores themes such as war, family, and forbidden relationships.
Its cultural exploration is important and teaches Japanese customs. This film taught me what great cinema is- not necessarily linear or explained, but drenched with brilliance, thoughtfulness, and art. I was able to escape the confines of traditionally constructed films and it was an awakening in pleasure and creativity.
The lesson learned is great cinema knows no boundaries and the film was helpful to open my eyes to types and styles of films that may be deemed difficult.
Drawing its plot particularly from Ueda’s tales “The House in the Thicket” and “The Lust of the White Serpent”, the film is set in Azuchi–Momoyama period Japan (1573–1600). Mizoguchi was fascinated and inspired by these fables and the supernatural style from the long-ago stories are powerful and classic.
A peasant farmer and potter, Genjūrō (Masayuki Mori) leaves his wife and young son behind during the civil war and is seduced by a spirit that threatens his life. He finds himself at a Kutsuki mansion in the hopes of selling his pottery. The mansion is run by the fabulous Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo) who seduces him and requests he marry her.
But is Lady Wakasa real or a ghost from the past? She harbors a horrific secret.
A subplot involves Genjūrō’s friend, Tōbei (Eitaro Ozawa), who dreams of becoming a great samurai and chases this goal at the unintended expense of his wife. He steals the head of a well-known general and is rewarded with shiny armor. Eager to tell his wife he instead finds her working at a local brothel.
The costumes specifically deserve a shout-out. Drenched in Japanese drawings and colors they are exquisite to the eye despite Ugetsu being a black and white film. The obvious art actually looks better without color adding mystique.
My favorite visual is when two couples drift along in a boat on a tremendous lake. Amid fog and haze, the scene is gloomy yet magnificent offering the lushness of Japanese geography. It’s a breathtaking visual with a fabulous texture and tone that, once again, is aided by black and white filmmaking.
The ghost story also is aided by the black and white cinematography. Isn’t everything? The scenes seem to scroll by in a fusion of live-action and gorgeous landscapes. What is reality and what is not is up for debate? This adds to the confusion and overall beauty.
The humanity and moral conflict the two main characters face is hearty and worthy of a discussion. They strive for great success and riches but live in a cruel world with challenges. I found the men to be heroes. Ugetsu is as much a character study as it is an art film.
Ugetsu (1953) is a must-see for film lovers and those intrigued by other cultures. It should definitely appear on lists of superior films shown at film schools if it is not already.
Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design, Black and White