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Review: Ugetsu

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The films of Kenji Mizoguchi have been a major blind spot in my life as a filmgoer. I’ve seen plenty of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu films, but for some reason Mizoguchi had always hovered on my to-watch list, always put off until recently.

While watching Ugetsu, I realized that I might not have appreciated Mizoguchi as much had I watched him as a teen. Even as a college student or during my early twenties, I might not have been ready for his work. I’d have to be a bit older and much more patient to enjoy what was happening visually and in terms of the narrative.

Not that being older is a prerequisite for people to enjoy Ugetsu--it was just one for me.

Ugetsu - By Boat in the Moonlight

Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari, 雨月物語)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Rating: NR
Release Date: March 3, 2017 (limited)
Country: Japan 

Watching Ugetsu felt like walking into an austere room where an ancient handscroll has been unrolled, spread out, and hung up to observe. Its meters and meters of period narrative are told along the four walls. The scroll starts in one corner, traces the length of the room, and ends in the corner it began. Ugetsu is wonderfully looped and completed, wrapped neatly like an old-fashioned fable or tale. The return to the starting point of the story, that initial tableau, is marked by change, much like the lives of characters in the film.

Ugetsu is an adaptation of two braided plots from Ueda Akinar’s 1776 book of ghost stories of the same name. One story follows Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), a bumbling peasant who dreams of becoming a samurai. The other story follows Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), a potter who is seduced and waylaid by a mysterious noblewoman called Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo). In the backdrop is a senseless war that ravages the countryside, with samurais pillaging and looting from peasants.

In a tense moment early in the film, Genjuro risks his life waiting at a kiln as samurai approach on a rampage. His wife tells him to wise up and flee, yet Genjuro knows that the only future he and his family has are those pots that are firing away, just not fast enough. Throughout the film, the gentry and the warrior classes disregard the people beneath them, while Tobei and Genjuro dream of wealth and status. Both will risk everything for armor and kimonos. Ugetsu contains those perennial critiques of greed and vanity, sins for which the wives of the two men suffer.

Even before researching Mizoguchi’s background, I could sense his love of kabuki and painting in the visual style and rhythms of the Ugetsu. The film ushers itself in with traditional song, and there’s a measured theatricality to the blocking, staging, and performances of this period ghost story. The first time Lady Wakasa appears on screen, she is an otherworldly presence. It’s not just the manner of dress, but a manner of being. Her servant follows to her side slowly, and she approaches Genjuro at a pace of her own that defies the bustle of the market. She is not one of these people, that much is clear.

Mizoguchi’s extended takes are marvels of deliberation. Contemporary filmmakers tend to use long takes as a sort of spectacle, calling attention to ballsy filmmaking craft (i.e., the long-takeness of the long-take) while paradoxically aiming at audience immersion (i.e., this unfolds continuously like real life). There’s little sense of how form and content are wed in the contradictory presentation. For Mizoguchi, the extended take is part of the period storytelling. I mentioned the wall scroll idea earlier, which is a fitting way to depict a period tale. The story is fantasy touched by reality; its form and content are rooted in a time and a place and an art tradition that is tied to said time and said place.

The 4K restoration of Ugetsu looks excellent, and I was actually thrown by it for a moment. It may have been the digital projection, but there was an uncanny sense of movement about some objects in the frame. They moved a little too smooth, a little too fast, sort of like when watching a new movie on a new TV with the settings just a little off. I don’t know if that’s a flaw since I eventually adjusted to it, but maybe it speaks to the film being so much an evocation of a period centuries ago that a contemporary presentation made uncanny movement more apparent. But hey, a classic is a classic.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.