Ugetsu

Ugetsu ★★★★★

Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is an epic tragedy turned intimate. The forces of war and society combine to split two couples apart to devastating effect. And yet for all the brutality of civil war in a feudal system, it is male ambition and greed that does the most damage. One man dreams of becoming a famous and powerful samurai, while the other wishes to profit from the trading opportunities the war offers. Neither are bad men, just vain and greedy, but this renders them deaf to the wise counsel of their wives. The men think they can beat the social and economic system and lead their families to a better life, but the women realise it is they who will suffer first and hardest, and yet they are powerless to intervene.

As effective as this simple morality tale is, what lifts Ugetsu towards the extraordinary is the way it transcends the realism of suffering to enter into a nether world of eternal grief. Mizoguchi draws dramatic details around the living, with the busy industry of their trade, and the brutal invasion of their wars, and then contrasts it with the eerie stillness of death. The ghost world turns inward under the veil of mist or the trance of music to become displaced and treacherous. The simple rules of survival - fight or flight - buy and sell - dissolve before the ethereal gravity of the supernatural afterlife. 

Yet the existence of ghosts brings more to bear than the grief of loss for those who have passed away - or even the fear of the harm they might cause - it brings ecstasy too. The very real and earthy plight of one of the families draws the husband into a web of seduction where the axes tilt and life and death entwine. And in death, as ghosts, it seems that women are able to reach the men, to seduce them and bend them to their ways, or at least to an understanding, that while they were living they could not do. 

Mizoguchi achieves this transition from life to death through a remarkable fusion of subtle pacing and gliding camera, and notably through the application of a hypnotic and mournful score. At times a simple drum controls the film’s slowed down heart beat. At others it is joined by swirling patterns and shimmering percussion, with gentle dissonances and chiming bells that act like an aural painting of eerie mystery and danger, but also of beauty trapped within a trance-like state, as if caught inside a spell. The music calls out to the dead, and in one memorable scene they answer back with an intensely melancholic song that is spine tingling in its otherness. 

The tragedy of Ugetsu reveals the way love is relegated by aspiration. The men desire to enter a higher social strata, and while they wish no harm on their wives, their relative agency gives them opportunities, while their wives are left scrambling for scraps. Mizoguchi shows us an unequal society within a zero sum game. As the men begin to enjoy success the women inevitably suffer. The men suffer too in the end, but that is the moral of the story ... care for your women - for all of life’s wealth and fame is worth nothing without their love. 

Favourite Films | Best Films of the 1950s | Best Music (Scores and Soundtracks) | Kenji Mizoguchi Ranked

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