Ugetsu Movie Review
Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is a farmer and part-time potter who's sick of being poor and is delighted when he finds that a trip with his wares to a nearby town earns him a pretty penny. Quickly getting greedy, he works night and day to make more product to sell, although his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) urges caution. Genjuro's brother-in-law Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) is also sick of the simple life, but his way out is the dream of a little kid: He wants to be a samurai. His first attempt to run away and join one of the roving armies doesn't work out so well, though, with the samurai kicking him away, laughing and saying to come back when he has armor and a spear. After the village is ransacked by soldiers, Genjuro's kiln and wares somehow survive, so all four of them head to town to sell everything they can to rebuild their lives. All that comes before this point - pillaging, poverty, hopelessness - is just precursor, though, as the men are each presented with the ability to live out their dreams, opportunities they quickly snatch, leaving their loved ones to fend for themselves in a lawless and ghost-plagued land.
At first (and perhaps second and third) glance, Ugetsu is one of the most hopeless films ever made. Simple people dream of better things - adventure, riches - and are crushed for it when they receive them, or at least the appearance of them. The lesson they learn, if any, is that life is mindlessly cruel and favors only the strong and the lucky. But somehow, in all this, Mizoguchi has made a film that is not the cruel, sadistic exercise which this description would make it seem. Instead of the innate superiority that normally suffuses morality tales, there is a sense of compassion here, a charitable and saddened poetry that understands the foolish things people do, even when it destroys what little they have.
Mizoguchi and his screenwriters based the film on Eastern and Western literary sources, blending stories from Japanese author Akinari Ueda as well as Guy de Maupassant, helping to give this deceptively simple work a universal appeal that is mindful of Rashomon, a contemporary that had a similarly bleak view of human nature. Ugetsu also shares Kurosawa's love of deadly symmetries and is a marvel of the ways in which multiple storylines - the desperate and abandoned wives, the happy and then cursed husbands - can be smartly woven together from disparate angles. It's so tightly constructed that even a seeming anomaly like a ghost (yes, there's more than one ghost here) seems just another character, just as lost and forlorn as the living.
The two-disc Criterion Collection DVD is a deluxe package indeed, featuring interviews, trailers, documentaries, a two-and-a-half-hour film on the life and work of Mizoguchi, and even a neat little booklet containing all three short stories the film was based on, as well as an insightful essay by Philip Lopate. The screen transfer of the film's full-screen presentation is as good as one could hope for, though there's still notable scratchiness on the print and some scenes overwhelmed by dark. But for the most part, it's a good presentation of the film, nicely capturing the mournful beauty of Mizoguchi's work.
Aka Ugetsu monogatari.
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