Ugetsu: The Criterion Collection
If Akira Kurosawa is the director generally described as the most "Western," and implicitly the most accessible, Japanese filmmaker, then Kenji Mizoguchi runs at least a close second. Because he died in 1956, just as worldwide audiences were getting swept up in the postwar wave of masterful Japanese cinema, Mizoguchi has never attained the recognition of Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu. But knowledgeable cinephiles treasure his work, and they should welcome the deluxe treatment given to one of Mizoguchi's most acclaimed efforts, 1953's Ugetsu, in this double-disc set from The Criterion Collection. Set in civil war-wracked 16th century Japan, Ugetsu follows the divergent fates of two couples, neighbors in a small village which awaits the inevitable incursion of enemy soldiers.
Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is a farmer whose talent at pottery earns him extra money, especially as political chaos causes prices to rise. His neighbor (and, according to Tony Rayns' commentary, his brother) Tobei (Sakae Ozawa) appears at first to be that typical Japanese figure of comic relief, the peasant who harbors idealistic fantasies of one day becoming a samurai. It's clear from the outset that the men are fools and their wives, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), respectively, are the only ones with any sense. When the rampaging soldiers arrive in the village, Genjuro's opportunistic greed overcomes him and he risks a return home to retrieve his latest batch of vases and bowls. All four villagers, along with Genjuro and Miyagi's young son, escape by boat with this inventory. In the first of many indelible scenes, they encounter a wounded boatman as they drift across a mist-shrouded lake, who warns them of trouble ahead. Miyagi and her son opt then to remain behind, and the other three continue to town. From there, both men find their wildest dreams coming true Genjuro is taken in by a mysterious noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo), who showers him with compliments, while Tobei uses his share of the pottery money to procure the armor he needs to finally become a warrior. But male selfishness doesn't pay in the long run both men eventually comes to realize the illusory nature of their misguided goals.
* * *
Ugetsu is clearly a product of the postwar Japanese mindset, and both Genjuro and Tobei are meant to represent different aspects of the madness which gripped the nation during the 1930s and 1940s. Genjuro is a war profiteer whose tunnel-vision only allows him to see how events can benefit him personally. Meanwhile, Tobei is the pathetic figure of the man who sees in military adventurism his only hope for glory or satisfaction. For those unfamiliar with his work, Mizoguchi's directing style is a revelation. From the opening shot, his camera moves with grace and confidence, in stark contrast to Ozu or even Kurosawa (at least during the 1950s). Mizoguchi hardly ever uses close-ups, allowing the action to unfold in extended single shots that never seem indulgent or excessive. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa a frequent collaborator during Mizoguchi's later years crafts magical black-and-white images, most notably the otherworldly boating scene and an equally surreal tableaux of Genjuro picnicking with Lady Wakasa in a lakefront setting right out of an ancient woodcut. It always seems like modern Hollywood composers could learn much from their Japanese counterparts of the '50s and '60s, and Fumio Hayasaka's powerful score, using only Japanese instruments, excels by knowing when to be bold and when to remain silent. The overall effect is that of a veteran, well-oiled filmmaking machine operating at the peak of its collective powers to create an unexpectedly moving film. It's only in the final reels that one realizes the spell Ugetsu has cast.
The Criterion Collection presents Ugetsu in its original Academy ratio (1.33:1), and the digitally remastered image is, for the most part, spectacularly smooth and free of defect. The Dolby Digital 1.0 Japanese soundtrack (with well-translated English subtitles) is also pleasant and acceptable. Within its handsome slipcase, Ugetsu includes three items. Disc One contains the feature film, as well as three interview segments. Director Masahiro Shinoda (Samurai Spy) offers an appreciation which depicts Mizoguchi as both a realist and a fantasist, compares him to Ozu, and spotlights Hayasaka's score (14 min.). Assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka provides somewhat bitter reminiscence of Mizoguchi's famously autocratic on-set style (20 min.). Both of these interviews mention the same anecdote: Mizoguchi showing off the scar on his back, received from a spurned lover years earlier, and saying "If you want to make films about women, you have to have one of these." In a 1992 interview, cinematographer Miyagawa discusses how Mizoguchi's images frequently resembled an e-maki, or Japanese picture scroll (10 min.). Critic and scholar Tony Rayns offers a scholarly talk on his commentary track, which doesn't provide any revelatory insights but proves valuable nonetheless: He discusses Mizoguchi's incorporation of some aspects of Hollywood style, as well as his (one-sided) sense of competition with the younger, more acclaimed Kurosawa. Disc Two contains Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Filmmaker, a comprehensive feature-length 1975 documentary which comes at its subject through interviews with over 40 of his friends, collaborators, and acquaintances. The documentary's pace could be quicker, but it provides a history not only of Mizoguchi's life and work, but a fascinating look at the early years of Japanese cinema in general. The enclosed booklet contains a masterful essay by Philip Lopate, as well as the three short stories which formed the basis for Ugetsu: Akinari Ueda's "The House in the Thicket" and "A Serpent's Lust," and Guy de Maupassant's "How He Got the Legion of Honor." Taken as a whole, the package provides not only a definitive treatment of this film classic, but a marvelous entry point to Mizoguchi's prolific career.