Ugetsu ★★★★½

Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari should never be forgotten, as it’s a powerful cautionary tale against temptation. Through its multiple narratives, the film demonstrates how human impulsion and coveting leads to underappreciating the elements of our lives necessary for perennial happiness, such as the people who genuinely care for you, and can end up in tragedy. Thematically, the film can be thought of in the same alley as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and, like Au hasard Balthazar, it strives no less than to capture the entire human condition in just about 90 minutes.

The film is set in a virtually anarchic era filled with violently warring clans. This provides the backdrop to the story, which is about two peasants who have larger aspirations in their lives. One of them is a pottery maker who, in his desire to achieve great wealth after an exceptionally lucrative day at the market, obsessively creates as much pottery and neglects his family, even during moments where clans would place them all in jeopardy. The other peasant dreams of becoming a respected and noble samurai who similarly neglects his wife’s pleas, orders, and eventually much more in his myopic quest.

When both men travel to a town from their distant village, the tale begins where the two not only lose themselves in their own fantasies but also unintentionally harm their loved ones through embarking on their own selfish quests. The pottery maker’s journey in particular is one that's especially surreal, dreamy, and sometimes terrifying as his human impulsion of lust overcomes him. As for the wannabee-samurai, his tale will be a rise and fall, both caused by unconventional moments that demonstrate how uncaring and sporadic fate can be.

Simultaneously, the film shows how women in society also suffer with extremely limited positions, few chances to climb a social latter, and stereotypical roles that they are expected to fulfill in the dark juxtaposition with the leading males of the film arrogantly pursuing their personal adventures. As much as this film tortures the men in the end, it also takes a huge bite at the women. Everybody loses in a sense; however, there's still a message of optimism as the film makes a plea for compassion, compromise, and appreciation of life, again, similar to Sierra Madre for comparison.

Besides the film having potent thematic material to work with, it’s beautiful to look at. Mizoguchi is a master of framing and of organizing complex shots. He plays with nature and places the human characters of the story in the landscape much like how a painter would; some scenes, aided by smoke effects and menacing surreal lighting, are as tranquil in their beauty as they are devastating for what the characters are or will go through. However, perhaps above all else the cinematography and visuals also bring a supernatural element to the film, which is appropriate as the film’s universe is one where the human emotions and cries of agony are integral to the supernatural world fluidly permeating about. This is all perfect as the film also toys with such supernatural elements and superstitions, seamlessly turning the world into a fantastical dream or a terrifying premonition to further delve into the psyche of the characters.

Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari should remain relevant for as long as we are alive. It's one of the many films that should aid in an understanding of the human condition and, crucially, steps that should be taken in preventing the existential suffering that can take over in such an experience. The film may be as Japanese as it can get, all the way down to its traditional-sounding score, but at its core it’s a film that should speak to everybody. Completely worthy of checking out for much of the similar reasons detailed here is Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff, a film he made a year later in 1954. Like Ugetsu, Sansho's also as deliciously devastating as it is prophetic and otherworldly.

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