Ugetsu

Ugetsu ★★★★★

pleased that after only about 9 months after last viewing this I had enough new thoughts on it and enough of a new lens…the sign of a true masterpiece. honestly if you were a burgeoning cinephile and you asked me which “classic” Japanese film you should watch first that would get you into the peak 1950s-60s of Japanese film, I’d point you right to this movie. yes, we can talk about Rashomon (too theatrical) or Seven Samurai (too long) or Late Spring (good..but this feels more contemporary, I’ll explain why) all being good fits for that, but to me Ugetsu works perfect. too often people believe that old Japanese movies are all samurai flicks or kaiju (strange creature) films, and Ugetsu kind of flagrantly mocks the idea of both of those throughout its runtime. Kenji Mizoguchi’s hallmarks are all here - the constantly moving camera (thanks to the great Kazuo Miyagawa), female hardship, and above all else, in this film he nailed that fantasy realism better than possibly any movie ever made has. constantly in this film we are left questioning what’s reality and fantasy, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie blur that line better than this. many will point to the idea that there aren’t crazy special effects or anything overtly fantastical (besides some intense makeup), but it’s the way Mizoguchi and Miyagawa created such an atmosphere together where you really can never be sure what you’re looking at. this is one of the more deceptively simple films ever shot, and I wish filmmakers who dig too far into fantasy films nowadays realize you really don’t need all that to trick your audience.

but to an outside viewer, the more modern themes have got to be extremely compelling. you have the ideal of greed, especially as a male obsession (think crypto dudes and the NFT crowd, if you want a March 2022 example) in terms of giving it all away for silly reasons. wartime is raging, and while Mizoguchi originally intended this as a critique of Japanese society at the time, it’s amazing how relevant it all is in the face of the Ukraine conflict of today, and how many ideals could apply to modern society, be it American or western European. in the time since I’d last seen this, it was impressive to make connections to Yasuzo Masumura’s Irezumi (elliptical narrative, plight of women in the face of male stupidity) and Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai. I had just watched the latter not too long after my last visit to the dream world of Ugetsu, and can’t believe I couldn’t make the connection between the two. both films use the fade in/out perfectly, and I’m sure Hou was greatly inspired by this film. many have stated they have issues with the lack of characterization, or the fact that plots and scenes feel short and don’t get fleshed out the way they could, but while I’m usually in that camp, I disagree when it comes to this movie. Mizoguchi set out to make this fable-like story into a dreamy, atmospheric picture, and that’s exactly what he succeeded at. rarely has tragedy felt so beautiful, yet had such redemption. you can see where the newer generation of Japanese directors took from Mizoguchi in this regard - I feel both Hirokazu Kore-eda (especially Maborosi) and Ryusuke Hamaguchi (with Drive My Car) both learned from Mizoguchi on how to deliver melancholy and tragedy at their most beautiful, without the audience feeling like they've been completely wrecked and with absolutely no way out at the end. I generally do not believe any of the best films to be bleak, and the redemptive finale (and closure of the ellipsis...take note of the first and last shots) to be pretty overwhelming every time. Mizoguchi made many great movies, but this still may be my favorite of all...though a run through his surviving filmography is currently in the works.

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other notes (spoilers! I don’t want to spoiler tag the above but please don’t read below if you haven’t seen this masterpiece):
-the Criterion Bluray’s subtitles leave out a very important context in the scene where Genjuro comes to his senses against Lady Wakasa: she beckons him by calling him 源十郎様 (“Genjuro-sama”, or “Lord Genjuro”), essentially treating him as her equal. I know Japanese is obviously a tricky language to convey its nuances in subtitling, but I feel adding “Lord Genjuro” would really help English audiences a lot with context to this scene, which is vastly changed knowing this. I’ll have to check the Masters of Cinema disc to see if they got this right or not…
-in Masahiro Shinoda’s glowing interview on this disc brings up a great comparison I’d never made before - in the scene where Kinuyo Tanaka’s Miyagi meets her fate, Mizoguchi changes his shooting to be more documentary-realist, much like an Italian Neorealist film. this is contrasted by the scene where Genjuro returns home to “find” her at the end of the film, where Miyagawa goes with his gliding camera, delving into the dreamy atmosphere more and letting the audience know what kind of scene we’re witnessing.
-Tokuzo Tanaka shared that Kenji Mizoguchi was hard on all of his actors and crew, with the exception of Kinuyo Tanaka, who he was apparently in love with. she certainly had to love him too if she always played the tormented woman in all of his movies!!!

anyway if you still haven’t seen this, I don’t know what you’re doing

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