Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953

by Michael Joshua Rowin

I admit it: I’ve been in a cinephilic rut. Perhaps it was that painful mid-year break-up, or the distracting desire to read through Philip Roth’s oeuvre, or just a general, nondiscriminatory quarter-life malaise—whatever it was, it hit hard this year and had a particularly negative effect on my usually religious moviegoing. Aside from a few bright moments (Battle in Heaven, Old Joy) and an overdue return to personal favorites (La Strada, Buster Keaton), almost anything film-related seemed rooted in overwhelming disappointment, whether it be the overpraised mediocrity of Funny Ha Ha (lo-fi naturalism at its effected and self-satisfied worst), the embarrassing egotism engulfing M. Night Shyamalan’s pretentious power-of-the-imagination appeal Lady in the Water (can we please, please stop with the “misunderstood auteur” stuff and just call out this clown for the hack he is?), or expected high points that arrived in the form of missed opportunities (although, like the National League, this year has been such a weak one for cinema that A Scanner Darkly remains among the cream of the crop). Between the films themselves and the veritable jungle of a New York City theater (actually, a jungle is probably more silent and less odorous), I had, of late, found myself actively avoiding cinema, even while recognizing the inevitable feelings of guilt and desertion that would result.

Now comes the moment of the review where I introduce Kenji Mizoguchi’s magnum opus Ugetsu and explain how watching it for the third time in the course of a calendar year “renewed my faith in cinema.” I resort to this subtly ironic self-reflexive address (M. Night would be proud!) because sarcasm is often the best way to diffuse the pressure brought about when attempting to tackle such a canonical artistic monument. A stunning work of modern humanism constructed and executed by one of the great masters of Japanese cinema, Ugetsu is the kind of classic that regularly has critics and others employing adjectives like “lyrical,” “haunting,” and “greatest.” Aside Kurosawa and Ozu, Mizoguchi is perhaps the most well-known pre-1950s Japanese director in the West, and Ugetsu is the crowning achievement of the last phase of his storied, diverse career, winning the Silver Lion at the 1953 Venice Film Festival (the middle of three consecutive Venice awards received by a Mizoguchi film) and ever since ubiquitously appearing on critics’ top ten lists. Five years after its release, no less a budding authority than Jean-Luc Godard would, in focusing on Ugetsu, rank the director “on equal terms with Griffith, Eisenstein, and Renoir.” In short, Mizoguchi and Ugetsu’s immortality are assured; to write of either from a newly illuminating angle is not.

So, for the sake of argument, this humble critic will try something perhaps blasphemous: pointing out a dent in Ugetsu’s armor. Perhaps I’m still in that cynical rut. The usual track when writing about Ugetsu, after giving some background by explaining how the story was adapted by Yoshikata Yoda from two Akinari Ueda short stories, is to highlight the film’s moments of pure cinematic bliss. And Ugetsu is full of them. Like Ophuls and later Godard, Mizoguchi was nothing if not one of the great organizers and executors of the master tracking shot. The first 20 minutes or so of Ugetsu give only hints of the brilliance to come. Two couples, potter Genjuro and wife Miyagi (with young son Genichi in tow) and farmer Tobei and wife Ohama, live in 16th-century Japan during an era of raging civil war. Both men pine for a better life, half out of concern for their families and half out of concern for themselves—Genjuro wants to sell more pottery for greater profit and Tobei vaingloriously sees himself becoming a samurai despite proper training or equipment—and they take unnecessary risks to fulfill their pipe dreams, putting themselves and their loved ones in danger while soldiers storm their village. Mizoguchi captures the action with swooping crane shots and uninterrupted takes of intense confusion and chaos. But it’s when the five refugees cross a river to escape the violence that things take on a preternatural aura. As Ohama rows and sings an eerie song accompanied by the incessant beat of an offscreen drum (composer Fumio Hayasaka’s score is one of the great ambient triumphs in the history of the medium), floating in a foggy, nearly extraterrestrial body of water reminiscent of Sunrise, their boat encounters the vessel of what they believe is a ghost. Instead it’s a man whose dying words portend grave events. The boat is turned around and Miyagi and her son are left behind for the two men and Ohama to seek out a fortune in another village. It’s there that Genjuro is seduced by a real phantom, Lady Wakasa. Their tryst plays out in a series of unforgettable scenes: the dead Lady, in the former castle of her destroyed clan, wooing Genjuro with a song asking for unending devotion, her otherworldly sways mesmerizing the simple potter; the new lovers’ dip in a hot springs that, following Mizoguchi’s constantly roving camera, dissolves seamlessly into a idyllic frolic in the grass. Meanwhile, inevitably but still excruciatingly, Miyagi is robbed and killed while left to her own devices in yet another tracking shot—Mizoguchi saves his tour de force “picture scroll” shots for scenes of peak emotion and turmoil, whether it be an ephemeral love affair or a brutal death, to depict the enormous canvas on which they play out on both a visual and human scale.

But if Ugetsu can be faulted for anything, it’s that the sublimity of the Genjuro-Lady Wakasa-Miyagi storyline trumps the earthbound Tobei-Ohama storyline, which, standing in the other’s shadow, feels like an afterthought. Whereas Genjuro’s surrender to greed and temporary pleasure finds a fitting objective correlative in Lady Wakasa—a phantasmagoric trace of vanquished Japanese aristocracy—Tobei’s delusions of grandeur never get accorded anything as transcendent. Here the moralistic tendencies of Mizoguchi’s project are decorated with fewer and weaker cinematic flourishes—although one, a tracking shot of a vassal ritualistically beheading his master, should be considered among the better known moments of Mizoguchi’s career—with the result that the imparted moral feels diagrammed, less a classic tragedy determined by forces of fate or folly than a finger-wagging cautionary tale of unrealistic ambition. After Tobei claims the felled master’s decapitated head as the doing of his hand and is subsequently awarded samurai status, Mizoguchi settles for an ironic discovery in a roadside brothel where the celebratory ersatz warrior encounters his abandoned wife, since made a rape victim by a gang of soldiers, among the disreputable employees. Compared to Genjuro and Miyagi’s separate plights and later impossible, cross-realm reunion, Tobei and Ohama’s drama remains downright pedestrian. Tobei’s subsequent renunciation of his brief samurai stint and then his reconciliation with Ohama back in the old village come across as tacked on and unsatisfactory.

This, of course, is all a matter of relativity: in any other context Tobei and Ohama might have been autonomous, fleshed out characters, but here they complement Genjuro and Miyagi only in the most redundant sense. But then, what does it matter when Mizoguchi’s treatment of the Genjuro-Lady Wakasa-Miyagi strand is so absolutely rich in its expression of temptation and regret? Ugetsu’s last fifteen minutes are positively, yes, transcendent in this regard: upon the disgrace of learning Lady Wakasa’s true nature Genjuro returns to his village to find the family he left behind. The first time he passes through the hut the place is empty, but after circling the exterior he enters again, this time to the sight of Miyagi tending to a fire and cooking food for her Ulysses. This is all accomplished in one shot, so that Miyagi’s appearance stuns in its technical and logical “impossibility.” Genjuro soon learns, once awakening from a deep sleep, that he had been dreaming or hallucinating (or visited by yet another ghost), but his sadness somehow never comes close to this viewer’s initial heartbreaking pang when he discovers that a short taste of domestic harmony will greet Genjuro before the consequences of his misdeeds hit him full force. And that’s the genius of Mizoguchi, for whatever slight imperfections mar this otherwise fully realized work, it is the renewing of our emotional responses, how they can be stirred through artistry and without the faintest trace of manipulation or gimmickry, that makes such a classic indeed what it is.