Synopsis: “Quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers,” said Jean-Luc Godard of Kenji Mizoguchi. And Ugetsu, a ghost story like no other, is surely the Japanese director’s supreme achievement. Derived from stories by Akinari Uedu and Guy de Maupassant, this haunting tale of love and loss – with its exquisite blending of the otherworldly and the real – is one of the most beautiful films ever made.
eyelights: its basic plot. its anti-war message. the performances.
eyesores: its conspicuous righteousness.
‘Ugetsu monogatari’ is a 1953 motion picture by Kenji Mizoguchi, one of Japan’s most renowned filmmakers. Set in the late 16th century, in feudal Japan, it tells the story of two ambitious peasants’ attempts to personally profit from war – irrespective of the impact this has on their spouses.
It is a war story. Genjurō is a potter who discovers that wartime conditions have increased demand for his wares. He sees a fortune in the making. Meanwhile, his friend Tōbei is obsessed with becoming a samurai. He sees the perfect opportunity to become the soldier he’s dreamed of being.
It is also a love story. Although it isn’t a romantic film, per se, it finds Genjurō falling under the spell of the mysterious Lady Wakasa, after delivering to her mansion a large purchase of his pottery. Although he has a family, he is incapable of controlling himself, enraptured by pleasure.
The picture condemns war for the folly it stirs in men, and the consequential vulnerability it creates in women. Here, both Genjurō and Tōbei’s spouses suffer much misery before their husbands finally see the light and readjust their priorities. It isn’t without redemption, but it is critical.
‘Ugetsu mongatari’ is based on the eponymous short story anthology, of which it combines two of the nine shorts, adding also aspects of Guy de Maupassant’s novella ‘Décoré !’. The filmmakers also decided to change the fate of one of the two couples because it was deemed too downbeat for audiences.
Ultimately, it was nominated for and won a handful of prestigious awards, is considered one of Mizoguchi’s masterworks, and to this day is considered by many as one of the greatest films ever made. It is also credited for having helped popularized Japanese cinema in North America.
Strangely, both times that I have seen the film, it has not made that distinct of an impression on me. I recognize its quality, there is no doubt about that, but I don’t quite grasp what makes it such an astonishing motion picture. And yet, I struggle with trying to find any flaws in it.
One of the most interesting things I noticed this time, however, irrelevant though it may be, is the opening music, which featured soundscapes behind the traditional Japanese vocals and plucking of strings. I heard in it the origins of ambient music (although this is actually dated early ’70s).
Beyond that, to me ‘Ugetsu monogatari’ is simply a terrific film. I would say more about it, but at the heart of the picture lie a couple of secrets and some wicked twists that one shouldn’t unveil to anyone who hasn’t yet seen it. In short, it’s a superb drama about pride, passion, war and love.
I can’t think of any good reason not to see it.
Date of viewing: February 4, 2016