A wispy, sombre, dreamlike fable, rooted in the classicism of its 18th and 19th century literary sources and draped in the mantle of its director’s trademark fine-detail landscapes, Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu Monogatari” (“Tales of Rain and Moon”, also known simply as “Ugetsu”) is superb -- one of the handful of films that helped put Japanese cinema on the map internationally during the post-war period, alongside classics of the genre such as Kurosawa’s influential “Rashomon” (1951). The particular sense of exoticism associated with such works and their harsh but wistful tales of life in feudal Japan, fixed the period movie as the most popular conduit by which auteurs such as Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi came to be appreciated in the west as great masters of the cinematic arts, with Mizoguchi’s “The Life of Oharu” (1952) furnishing him with the first of three Venice Film Festival awards, and “Ugetsu”, its follow-up (which also won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1953), galvanising the influential French critics of the Cahiers du Cinéma into virtually tripping over themselves to be the first to dub him world cinema’s equivalent of a Shakespeare, Titian or Bach in their hunt to find superlatives with which to praise his exquisite, expressive yet subtle visual style.
This was a late-flowering of acclaim for Mizoguchi, who’d been much active in his home country for decades, starting in the silent movie era of the 1920s. A prolific filmmaker ever since, his work passed through many various and varied phases while developing the distinctive, mysterious, flowing’ visual scroll’ aesthetic, for which his late-period work was so often admired, and which utilised a one-take-per-scene methodology -- mobile camera work and high angle crane shots recording frequently complex choreographed movement. “Ugetsu” in particular displays an intensely painterly mise-en-scene woven from seeming opposites: a rich, embroidered historical realism puts us right back in the 16th century, but is melded with an elegantly rendered, poetic storybook artifice, creating an effect that at once distances us from the film’s human protagonists while visually illustrating their various emotional journeys with a rare lucidity and sympathy.
“Ugetsu Monogatari”” was actually Mizoguchi’s seventy-eighth film in total, although a great many of the earlier works are now lost forever to posterity. It is a ghost story -- drawn from two classic tales in a famous collection by 18th Century Japanese writer Akirari Ueda, reworked alongside a Guy de Maupassant short story. This combination of Japanese heritage and western literary sources is stitched seamlessly together by veteran screenwriters Matsutaro Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda, into an exquisite tale that ponders the psychology of war from the perspective not of those who set out to fight in such affairs, but from the point of view of the ordinary folk who stay at home while only carnage, upheaval and chaos prosper all around them. As was often the case throughout Mizoguchi’s work, the plight of low status women is of particular concern in that regard. The film’s vivid high angle landscape photography calmly captures this ‘chaos’ from above, in objective visual detail, but it is the psychological and emotional effect of war upon ordinary men and women – in this case two husbands and their devoted wives, each of whose episodic narrative we follow as they struggle to bring their dreams to some kind of fulfilment -- which Mizoguchi’s camera so deftly elucidates, bringing the protagonists’ travails to life with a rarefied grace and with subtle refinement.
The setting is the idyllic-looking countryside of Japan in the 16th century, among inhabitants of the peaceful peasant villages that line the shores of Lake Biwa in Ōmi Province, as a civil war threatens to sweep across the region and transform the lives of its people for the worse. It isn’t necessary to be that familiar with all the historical details of this period in Japanese history; as we join the story the fighting is taking place off stage, though we see and hear it in the background of the lives of artisan potter Genjurō (the great Masayuki Mori) and his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), who live near Genjurō’s sister Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) and her own husband, Tōbei (Eitarō Ozawa). It is the ambitions and ill-judged schemes of the menfolk in these families that will come to have such far reaching consequences for the lives of both couples. As the village elder warns of a coming conflict and that the villagers should prepare to flee the region should marauders and rampaging soldiers seek to take advantage of the state of lawlessness that is rapidly descending upon villages, Genjurō can only think of the money to be made in a prosperous nearby town now that a recent billet of troops has made the area a trading hot spot. He takes a cart-load of his earthenware pots to market despite Miyagi’s protests and her worries for the safety of the couple’s young son. Meanwhile, Tōbei has an even wilder scheme: seeking glory and prestige through joining the samurai warriors billeted near the market Genjurō plans on visiting, he thinks this will impress his wife Ohama, despite her evident anger that he is prepared to leave her on her own in pursuit of such vain fancies. In the event, Genjurō returns having indeed secured a tidy profit, while Tōbei comes home having been dismissed and humiliated by the louche warriors he so dearly wants to impress, because he does not own any proper samurai armour.
Rather than be content with the small but adequate fortune that he has already earned for himself, Genjurō becomes obsessed with maximising his profits and with that aim in mind sets about making a bumper batch of pots, jars and plates in order to really make a killing on his next planned market visit. So preoccupied is he with the potential wealth he might earn from his endeavours that he completely fails to notice that the civil strife is moving ominously ever nearer his home village. Soon news comes through that huts are being raided, property destroyed, men murdered and women raped by lawless raiders operating in the villages that lie on the outskirts of the fighting. Genjurō and Miyagi’s village is evacuating as the upheaval heads its way, but Genjurō’s pots are in the kiln and he dare not let the fire go out or all his work will be ruined! Eventually he is forced, reluctantly, to abandon the site. All the while Genjurō, Miyagi, Ohama and Tōbei are hiding in the woods, Genjurō can do nothing more but fret over his potentially ruined livelihood. But on returning to their now-ransacked village, the potter is relived to find his work has miraculously survived unscathed. Now Genjurō plans to take his wares to another, much bigger market, which lies on the other side of Lake Biwa; and Tōbei, who is still plotting to somehow obtain the coveted armour in order to beg approval with the local Samurai, comes with him. Initially, Miyagi and Ohama come too, but while crossing the misty, mysterious lake, the foursome come upon an abandoned boat with only one mortally wounded occupant still within it, who warns of pirates in the area -- and the two husbands agree to leave the women behind, while they continue on their way still seeking to fulfil their lofty ambitions.
Up until this moment, Mizoguchi paints a lyrical but determinedly realist picture with crisp black and white cinematography from Kazuo Miyagawa and drifting, evolving compositions that centre the actors’ stunningly believable performances with reference to the historical verisimilitude of their surroundings. With the expedition across Lake Biwa, though, a hint of the Gothic is introduced, with an atmospheric chiaroscuro styling surfacing amid the brooding fog that drifts with funeral pace across the black lake, as if providing forewarning that the tale is about to take a distinctly supernatural turn. Mario Bava or Val Lewton could scarcely have provided a more forbidding scenario than is seen in this lengthy section. The traditional music score -- a lone bass drum pounding out a metronomic pulse amid edgy flutes and scratchy strings, compounds the ominous unreality of the proceedings toward which the two men appear to be drifting, as they continue seeking escape from the chaos of reality in their individual dreams of social advancement. While Tōbei’s tale appears at first to be quite comical in tone, with good fortune allowing him to quite suddenly come into the possession of the severed head of a much sought-after local warlord and thereby claim his right to join the Samurais (despite them not believing for a minute that he really did kill the great warrior by his own hand, as he claims), it soon develops a bitter sting in the tale: the Samurai good-humouredly award the opportunistic peasant his armour – and they also supply him with some vassals to accompany and serve him on his travels while they listen to his entirely fabricated tales about his warring expertise. However, en route home to show-off his newfound status to his wife, he makes a terrible discovery in a geisha-frequented inn, and learns of the terrible price he has unwittingly forced Ohama to pay while he’s been gone.
Genjurō’s adventures, meanwhile, take an even more surrealistic turn: at market he is introduced to a mysterious pale-faced noblewoman accompanied by her elderly housemaid. The young, aristocratic woman identifies herself as one Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō of “Rashōmon” fame) and promptly buys up a wide selection of Genjurō’s very best pottery. This refined yet strangely remote figure claims to be a collector who has long been a fan of Genjurō’s distinctive brand of work; she takes the astonished peasant back to Kutsuki, her home - a court-yarded mansion of Spartanly furnished, shoji-screened rooms shrouded in twilight -- and shows him all the many examples of his finest earthenware she has gathered together across the years, while appealing to him to let her become his sole patron, and to produce all his work from now on only for her. To suddenly find him-self exalted as a great artist like this, and by such a distinguished and noble personage as Lady Wakasa, completely goes to the poor man’s head. Despite Wakasa’s frankly bizarre spectral visage (her facial make-up was designed to evoke the appearance of the inscrutable masks from the traditional Japanese Noh theatre) and peculiarly halting, mouse-like gait; and even though she regularly communes with the spirit of her deceased father, who enjoins her with an echoing disembodied voice from the spirit world to make Genjurō her husband, the potter still fails to draw the obvious inference (‘I suppose you think I’m an enchantress,’ she giggles at one point, in a masterful use of the double bluff!) and duly marries this ghostly apparition, whereupon he enters into an idyllic never-world of marital bliss full of frolicsome bathing sessions and serene summer lawn picnics with his host, conveniently forgetting he already has an earthly wife and child still awaiting his return.
Although the focus of the narrative is firmly on the misadventures of the two male protagonists, Mizoguchi’s concerns are very much with the suffering women characters who eventually become the main victims in their husband’s well-meaning delusions. Even the ghostly Lady Wakasa has returned from the spectral realms only with the honest aim of finding the love she never experienced in life, and is understandably miffed when it transpires that Genjurō is already married, refusing to let him go back to his old life and therefore necessitating the Buddhist equivalent of an exorcism; sutras are painted on Genjurō’s body by a passing priest who sniffs out the taint of his involvement with restless spirits and sets out to help him sort himself out. There’s a tragic, fatalistic air to the fates of Miyagi and Ohama also – undeserving recipients of the harsh rewards of their husbands neglect, even though both men were originally only seeking a better life for their families. The director deals with the women’s stories with admirable restraint, standing back and stoically letting the tales unfurl themselves in a mere handful of sequence by way of the compelling and dignified performances essayed by the film’s two fine lead actresses, and then unleashing an unexpectedly emotional twist, that only compounds the tragedy of it all, in the final minutes. It might well be truthfully said that the supernatural element of the film feels these days like a rather clichéd and predictable part of the mix, beautifully choreographed though it is, but Mizoguchi’s metaphorical use of the material still feels just as quietly stated and subtle despite the use of such familiar genre element as restless ghosts and spirits; with it Mizoguchi’s proto-feminist feel for the lot of Japan’s low status women is still affecting, the lack of melodramatic overplay in his treatment of Gothic themes still is fresh thanks to the insistently entrancing imagery and gorgeous stylisation. Some have seen a foreshadowing of the aesthetic concerns of Michelangelo Antonioni in Mizoguchi’s tableaux designs of landscapes that dwarf their figures, and it seems like an entirely believable connection to make, especially in this, one of his greatest masterpieces.
This UK released duel-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo from Eureka Entertainment also includes a second Mizoguchi film on the Blu-ray disc in the set. “Oyû-sama” is a 1951 film shot by the director for Daiei Productions during a time when Mizoguchi was obliged to alternate his more personal projects, such as “Ugetsu Monogatari”, with commercial fodder chosen for him by the studio, much of it often aimed principally at female theatre goers. “Oyû-sama” is one such ‘women’s drama’, based on the 1932 novel ‘The Reed Cutter’ by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki; a period drama updated by Mizoguchi’s screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda with a contemporary setting. Not usually considered on a level with Mizoguchi’s finest work, the film nevertheless showcases his meticulous visual style, drifting camera and fine compositions, adding a touch of sophistication to what could have been, in less refined hands, a crass pot-boiler of thwarted-desire-and-broken-hearts melodramatics.
Once again, the main protagonist is a man, but it is the director’s steady depiction of the lives and fates of the women in the tale -- circumscribed by tradition and family loyalty -- which lend the film its power. Shinnosuke Seribashi (Yûji Hori) is an eligible middle-aged widower who’s not been having much luck with finding a suitable match during the traditional ‘presentations’ arranged for him by his helpful aunt. Her latest attempt to pair him up sees a representative party from the Kayukawa family visiting the aunt’s idyllic Kyoto retreat, hoping Shinnosuke will hit it off with the younger of its two daughters, the retiring Oshizu (Nobuko Otowa). Impatiently pacing the gardens in anticipation of the meeting, Shinnosuke spies the arrival of the party as it progress across a wooded glade, and is immediately struck dumb at the sight of the regal-looking woman heading the procession up to his aunt’s house. However, this turns out not to be his planned bride-to-be but her elder sister-in-law, the widowed Miss Oyû (Kinuyo Tanaka). As befits Japanese tradition, Oyû continues to live with her dead husband’s family and is bound by their decisions with regard to her future during the raising of her infant son at her brother-in-law’s residence. The nervy Oshizu, ever-devoted to her sister, but overtly conscious of the immediate chemistry that exists between Miss Oyû and Shinnosuke, is reticent in her ceremonial dealings with her potential spouse, and Shinnosuke at first declines to accept her as a match. Then a chance meeting with Oyû in the street, during which she collapses from heatstroke and has to be taken to Shinnosuke’s friend’s house nearby to recuperate, convinces her that the conscientious young man would make the perfect husband for her sister. She entreats him to change his mind and to accept Oshizu as his bride. So bewitched is Shinnosuke by her that he agrees – for no other reason than that at this point he would literally do anything she requested of him! On their wedding night, Oshizu reveals to her new husband that she is aware of the spark that exists between he and Oyû, and that the only reason she has agreed to marry him is so that the two of them can continue to be near each other. She is devoted to her sister and will not take the man she loves away from her, even though neither party will ever be permitted to acknowledge their feelings to each other.
This sets up a bizarre and fatally doomed triangle in which Shinnosuke and Oshizu are required to live out an unconsummated sham marriage for the benefit of public appearances, while Oyû and Shinnosuke can never address the rather large elephant in the room concerning their own mutual attraction. Indeed, Oyû appears unaware of her own natural rapport with her sister’s husband, but the bull is well and truly taken by the horns during one of the threesome’s many short holiday breaks, when an unsuspecting maid in a hot springs hotel mistakenly assumes from the body language displayed by the three that Shinnosuke and Miss Oyû are the married couple and Oshizu the gooseberry spare-part sister! From that moment on it’s a one way trip into heartache, repression, despair and the inevitable outbreak of public gossip that eventually threatens to sully the reputation of Miss Oyû and leads her former husband’s family to take action, while she remains blissfully unaware of her sister’s scheme and of Shinnosuke’s ill-advised part in it. For the most part Mizoguchi handles the inevitable tears and emotional fretting with his customary discreet style, but the director was never happy with the outcome, correctly feeling Kinuyo Tanaka was miscast in the role of Miss Oyû. However Nobuko Otowa (who would later appear in several of Kaneto Shindô’s ‘horror’ films, including “Onibaba”, where she played a murderous mother) and Yûji Hori essay portraits of repressed desire and muted longing with assured style, and the director’s knack for stylised grace means the film still makes an essential accompaniment to the main feature for Mizoguchi fans.
This latest addition to the Masters of Cinema series gives us brand new restored transfers for both films which, although battered and frayed around the edges thanks to the age and condition of the source materials, deliver handsome-looking extra HD detail in abundance. Across the two discs we also get Japanese and Spanish trailers for “Ugetsu Monogatari” and video discussions for both films from genre expert Tony Rayns who delves into the background of each production without giving away any major plot spoilers, so you can watch each of them before the main feature to get a sense of the context in which they were made if you so wish, without fear of ruining your experience of the films. There’s a deliciously packed 64 page booklet available with the release, featuring essays on both films plus English translations of the two Ueda Akinari tales, The Reed-Choked House and A Serpent’s Lust, which were used as the source for “Ugetsu’s” screenplay.
One all-time classic of world cinema and one lesser but still fairly compelling companion piece for the price of one, and in high definition: what more needs to be said? This is of course yet another essential purchase courtesy of the ever-reliable Eureka Entertainment and the Masters of Cinema.