Ugetsu

Ugetsu ★★★★½

#25 of 100 in my Top 100 Directors Challenge

Based upon two fictional stories from the 1776 anthology Ugetsu Monogatari ("Tales of Moonlight and Rain") by Ueda Akinari, this film is a wonderful example of 時代劇 or Jidaigeki (period drama). It is set during the Momoyama Period (1573-1615), when three powerful warlords -- Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu -- waged a civil war for control of all Japan. But unlike most dramas covering that period, director Kenji Mizoguchi's does not focus on the feuds, battles and nobility but instead upon the lives of two ambitious peasants, seeking to make their fortunes off the period of unrest.

Masayuki Mori plays the farmer Genjûrô, who produces pottery as a side business and discovers that his ceramic goods are in high demand amid widespread shortages. He has a wife named Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) who wants nothing more than a quiet life in the country, raising their young son Genichi (Ikio Sawamura). But Genjûrô is ambitious and has visions of getting rich by selling his pots, tea bowls, sake chalices and clay vases in the city.

The potter also has a sister Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) living in his village of Nakanogō, who is married to a simple working man named Tôbee (Eitarô Ozawa). This brother-in-law has dreams of becoming a mighty samurai swordsman, even though he has no military training and despite Ohama's pleas to accept his station in life. When Genjûrô heads off to town to sell his wares, Tôbee accompanies him, intent upon finding a mentor to guide him in the warrior's way, only to be rejected for his lack of armor and a spear.

When the civil war reaches Nakanogō, all the villagers flee except Genjûrô, who stubbornly stays by his kiln, tending the fire, lest his pottery inside be ruined. After a narrow escape, the five principle characters leave by boat across expansive Lake Biwa to take the ceramics to market. But when news of pirates on the lake frightens them, they separate, with Miyagi and Genichi heading off along the lakeshore on foot.

From here, the story branches in two directions, as Tôbee, dreaming of grandeur, buys weaponry and leaves Ohama to follow his ambition, and Genjûrô, dreaming of money and all it can buy, is seduced by a wealthy noblewoman called Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō). Before there is resolution and a reunion occurs in Nakanogō, several twists will occur, including a rape, encounters with ghosts, a beheading and some spiritual intervention.

This masterful film impressed me in so many ways. Especially skillful is the application of emotions, from the anxieties of the wives contrasted with their deep love for the men to the blind ambition of the men balanced by their tenacity and sheer will power. The episode with Lady Wakasa is both exotic and eerie, supported perfectly by the use of ancient wind instruments in the soundtrack to create an otherworldly effect.

This film has been identified as one of the main contributors to the post-War rise in awareness of Japanese cinema outside the island nation, winning the Silver Lion and the Pasinetti Award at Venice and receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, Black-and-White. Of the seven excellent Mizoguchi productions I've seen to date, this is my new favorite.

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