Ugetsu ★★★★

Day 343 of 365 of my year long challenge

Week 49: Man Up

One of a handful of films that helped popularise Japanese cinema in the West, Ugetsu is a masterclass of humble, powerful, human filmmaking.

When Shibata Katsuie's army sweeps through their village, two peasant couples flee. While fleeing, the two couples are warned to return to their homes but neither listen. Instead, Genjurō (Masayuki Mori) leaves his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) on the nearest shore while Tōbei (Eitaro Ozawa) brings his wife with him. While separated and fleeing, each man follows their work or their dream while the two women simply run from personal disaster to personal disaster. With a country in turmoil and passions tempted, the line between the real world and the supernatural blurs.

One thing I absolutely love about Ugetsu is just how straight to the point it is. Little time is wasted on setting things up. Kenji Mizoguchi just throws us and his characters straight into the thick of things expecting us to be able to keep up. It's a great way of reflecting the audience against the characters and it makes that development and understanding all the more rewarding. In terms of plot, character and world development, Ugetsu hits a sweet spot that leaves it feeling real and tangible but not so grounded that there can't be more to it.

Mizoguchi takes this further when he blends the real and supernatural worlds so subtly. Sure, anyone can see that something isn't right but it isn't then so egregious that they look too removed from each other. It's easy to believe the supernatural is exists in this war-torn land. Thankfully, Mizoguchi doesn't also use it as a gimmick. Revelations may seem big at the moment but it never feels gimmicky. Again, just a perfect balance.

A lot of love has to go to the core quartet for their performances. Each of them feels totally believable but they also feel like they're characters lifted from a fairy tale. Even so, none of the actors pushes this so far that they don't feel relatably and believably human. With all the flaws and temptations we recognise as well as the emotional growth we all wish to have, you can't help but be struck by them and their self-made plights. Mori, in particular, does a spectacular job as the most reasonable and yet most vulnerable of the peasants. It's just such a human performance it's as entrancing as it is touching.

The biggest praise though has to go to Mizoguchi and his team for crafting Ugetsu in such an enduring way. Stark shadows make their appearance but Ugetsu never feels like an over crafted studio-bound endeavour. The world here feels utterly alive and not unimaginable. Torn apart by war, the desperation creeps further and further into the film until it overtakes everything in its past. From this and the minor characters/,moments that drive it, this Japan becomes horrifyingly devastated by its own conflict.

Ugetsu is, in the simplest terms, a masterclass of precision. The film walks a fine balance yet never slips too far into anyone territory that would undoubtedly unravel it. The world is alive with believable characters and, most importantly, for all the supernatural that may exist, this all feels exceptionally human.