Set in the war-torn 16th century, Ugetsu's story follows two couples, peasant farmers with a growing sideline selling pottery, whose husbands' greed threatens to destroy them. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is happily married to wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and together they're raising their toddler son. Genjuro's poverty consumes him, however, even though Miyagi doesn't mind it so much so long as they're together. Despite the war (or perhaps because of it), Genjuro's pottery is selling well, and he sees it as his ticket out of a life of hardship and misery. Their neighbors, Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa, who for about ten years billed himself as Sakae Ozawa, as he does here) and wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) help Genjuro with his pottery, though Tobei longs for the glamorous life of a samurai, and he begs to let him join them. (Audio commentator Tony Rayns refers to Tobei as Genjuro's brother, though this reviewer didn't notice anything in the film to confirm this.) Regarded by them as a lowly peasant, the samurai scoff at his pleas for training, telling him to come back after he's found a suit of armor.
The civil war invades their village and the four (with Genjuro and Miyagi's son in tow) flee to the relative safety of the forest, Genjuro fretting that all the precious pottery left baking in the kiln will be ruined. Eventually Genjuro and Tobei leave their wives behind to journey to a distant city. There, Tobei gets his shot at becoming a samurai, while Genjuro is bewitched by a mysterious beauty, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo), whose titled clan was wiped out some years before.
Just before the opening titles, Ugetsu opens with a proudly displayed Silver Lion, won at the 1953 Venice Film Festival. It was the first of several awards that eventually included a 1956 Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design (black & white). Daiei's big win of the Golden Lion for Rashomon almost single-handedly created a new export market for Japanese movies that before had been virtually non-existent. Though the head of the studio, Masaichi Nagata, so hated Rashomon when he first saw it that he made sure his name was taken off the credits, he quickly realized how wrong he'd been, and eventually claimed full credit for its success, much to director Kurosawa's chagrin.
Still, the success of Rashomon puzzled the Japanese film industry, particularly Daiei. Western audiences were perceived as responding favorably to the "exoticism" of that picture: its costumes, its dream-like cinematography, its period flavor, and so Daiei all but ignored other kinds of Japanese films (other genres, those with modern settings, etc.), and deliberately began fashioning select films specifically for the export market. Kenji Mizoguchi, himself apparently quite eager to enjoy the same international acclaim as Kurosawa, spent most of the rest of his career catering to what Daiei thought constituted western world appeal. Some of these later films, such as Princess Yang Kwei-fei (Yokihi, 1955), are quite bad, while others like Ugetsu have scripts that play closer to Mizoguchi's strengths. Ironically, Mizoguchi's best films from this period, films that are much more rooted in the director's personal history, such as A Geisha (Gion bayashi, 1953) and especially the superb Street of Shame (Akasen chitai, 1956) sat unreleased for years and even now are quite underrated.
To further remind viewers of Rashomon, Ugetsu's cast includes to of the former film's stars, Masayuki Mori and Machiko Kyo (who had played the husband and wife in that film), joined by Mizoguchi's regular leading actress, the luminous Kinuyo Tanaka. Daiei probably would have liked to have cast Rashomon's Toshiro Mifune as Tobei, but by then he had already gone back to work at Toho Studios (though Daiei had secured his services for a rather embarrassing cameo in Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu the year before).
On its own terms Ugetsu is extremely well done. Legendary Daiei cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa's work is exemplary, and the acting is especially good. As pointed out in the DVD's supplements, the picture intriguingly contrasts the brutal realities of living in the midst of a war-torn country with the dream-like fantasy world of Lady Wakasa. The later recalls Chinese ink paintings, beginning with the lacquered-like title design. Almost the entire film was shot from a camera crane, which fluidly glides through scenes in an unobtrusive manner that enhances its dream-like imagery.
More interesting though is the harshness of the wartime scenes, an existence difficult for 21st century Americans to imagine but which would probably resonate with survivors of Sarajevo or Iraqis today. Genjuro's obsession with rescuing the pottery baking in his kiln even as marauding bandits and spear-carrying soldiers wander his village would probably make perfect sense to them: in war especially, if you can't earn a living, you don't eat. So life goes on, even with screams and gunshots heard in the distance. Mizoguchi generates terrific tension in these scenes, with one sequence especially, a perilous journey across Lake Biwa, the water smooth as glass and covered with a shroud-like fog, enormously evocative.
For unfathomable reasons Masayuki Mori is virtually forgotten in Japan, to say nothing of the West (though he's still hugely respected within the acting community), despite starring roles in this, Rashomon, and Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well. He was never leading man material in the conventional sense, nor outwardly distinctive like character actors Eijiro Tono or Takashi Shimura. Moreover, he was such a fine performer that he had a chameleon-like ability to change himself with each part. Certainly few westerners would recognize his struggling peasant-potter here as the same man who played Mifune's powerful shacho father-in-law in The Bad Sleep Well (1960).
Conversely, top-billed Machiko Kyo is visually right but somewhat out of her depth as the ghostly Lady Wakasa. Before Rashomon made her internationally famous she was regarded as a kind of Eastern World Marilyn Monroe/Diana Dors type. Kurosawa's film abruptly changed the direction of her career, and though by the 1960s she'd become a fine actress in Ugetsu she was still learning her craft. Conversely, Kinuyo Tanaka is superb as always as the poor wife and mother whose husband turns a deaf ear to her modest needs. Her beautiful narration at the end is pure poetry, reminiscent of the end of Joyce's The Dead.
Video & Audio
For audiences familiar with Ugetsu only via dark 16mm prints that used to play college campuses and the like, Criterion's DVD will be a revelation. Though its first reel is notably worn with innumerable soft scratches, the bulk of the full-frame film and its image are pristinely sharp with excellent contrast. The sound (with a Dolby Digital 1.0 signal, is also quite clear for what it is and the English subtitles are removable for those wanting to go back and savor Miyagawa's images.
Far and away the best extra - worth the price of the DVD all by itself - is a two-and-a-half hour documentary taking up the entire second disc, Kenji Mizoguchi - The Life of a Film Director, directed by Kaneto Shindo (The Lucky Dragon No. 5, Onibaba). The film is a remarkable achievement on many levels. Just as Maximilian Schell turned his subject's on-camera absence in Marlene (1984) to an advantage, so does Shindo in presenting a long documentary about a filmmaker that's almost completely bereft of film clips.
Instead, with the cross-examining skill of a high-priced attorney (and at times with a very un-Japanese directness) Shindo grills every major collaborator - screenwriters, cameramen, actors, producers - from Mizoguchi's silent days to his death in 1956, the sum of which creates a remarkably intimate portrait of the artist, his methods, ambitions, and failings.
This reaches a climax near the end when Shindo, acting as on-camera interviewer, probes into actress Kinuyo Tanaka's personal relationship with Mizoguchi, with she vainly trying to skirt around evidence that the professional and personal lines blurred over their 17 years together. That Tanaka died soon after this was released adds to its poignancy.
Equally important is that through its interviews the film offers not only a portrait of an individual artist but also that of the film industry at large, particularly as Mizoguchi's career stretched over three major studios (Nikkatsu, Shochiku, and Daiei), from silent to sound films, through the Second World War, and finally to late-in-life international acclaim. Many of its interview subjects have long since died, offering viewers a rare chance to see such late icons of Japanese cinema as producer Masaichi Nagata, director Yasuzo Masumura, screenwriter Yoshitaka Yoda, actors Ganjuro Nakamura, Eitaro Ozawa, Eitaro Shindo, and actresses Nobuko Otowa, Takako Irie, and Michiyo Kogure.
This 35mm production is presented in its original full frame format, and is in excellent condition. (A region 2/NTSC DVD was previously released in Japan and is comparable.)
The movie Ugetsu includes an intelligent and well-researched Audio Commentary by filmmaker/critic Tony Rayns, who had started but never finished a biography of the director, but from which he draws much of his material.
Other extras include a trio of Interviews. The first is an articulate appreciation (running 14 minutes and 16:9) by director Masahiro Shinoda (Double Suicide, Owl's Castle). That's followed by one with Tokuzo Tanaka (20 minutes, also 16:9), Ugetsu's chief assistant director, and himself later a prolific genre director of Daiei's Zatoichi and Hoodlum Soldier films. Last is a 1992 archival interview with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa that originally appeared on Criterion's laserdisc of Ugetsu. It runs 10 minutes.
Next are three Trailers. The first is a Japanese trailer, in good condition and complete with narration and text, which heavily pushes the film as a class production. What's billed as a second trailer is actually the same as the first one minus the text and narration. This is a common feature on Japanese laserdiscs and DVDs, possibly because these trailers often are cut together using alternate takes; this can be very informative sometimes and also these scenes, printed as they were directly off the camera negative, are often in better condition than the takes used in the feature proper. Finally, most of a Spanish-language trailer is included. Though undated, it clearly was created sometime after Ugetsu's international acclaim, and interestingly is presented matted to about 1.85:1.
Finally, a wonderful 70-page booklet includes a short list of cast and crew credits; an essay by Phillip Lopate offering an overview of Mizoguchi's career and the film itself; and the three stories that inspired Ugetsu -- "The House in the Thicket" and "A Serpent's Lust" by Akinari Ueda, and "How He Got the Legion of Honor" by Guy de Maupassant.
As director Tokuzo Tanaka suggests, Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu is a mediation on the "ephemeral nature of life," a film that contrasts the sensible needs of women with the greedy ambitions of man, the alluring beauty of the spirit world with the blunt horror of reality. Viewed with Kaneto Shindo's invaluable documentary, this becomes an obvious DVD Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.