Ugetsu ★★★★½

It’s hard to think of a more instantaneous moment of dread in a film than the twisted scowl on Lady Wakasa’s face when she realizes her lover plans to betray her. 

The glowering happens in the corner of director Kenji Mizoguchi‘s frame. It passes after less than a second, and he wisely chooses not to linger in it for melodrama. But the expression ranks among iconic moments in classic horror cinema for the sheer amount of terror it instills. 

That - is the essence of “Ugetsu.”

I find it difficult oftentimes to write on pre-1980s Asian cinema, due to a professed great lacking of knowledge on the culture. But what I walked away feeling from “Ugetsu” - with its score that is at turns assaulting and hypnotic, and its imagery that lives in an uncomfortable realm between nightmare and grave reality - was extreme unease. 

Reading more about Mizoguchi’s intent for the film afterwards, I learned that he had hoped to convey his disgust with the imperialism and combat-lust of the Japanese people in the post-WWII era. Intention achieved. 

Mizoguchi’s mixed use of Japanese folk tales and politics gives “Ugetsu” a tone that is full of horrific fantasy that touches uncomfortably close to reality. The viewer watches as a provincial farmer is enchanted by glory and wealth; knowing full well the ends and moral of these types of stories. 

And although the tales are familiar, Mizoguchi is so successful in concocting his aura of dread; “Ugetsu” puts the audience back as children... forced to learn these terrifying and macabre lessons all over again.

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