Ugetsu (DVD, 2005) Reviews

Ugetsu (DVD, 2005)

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A Visually-poetic Japanese Ghost Story

Aug 26, 2004 (Updated Dec 23, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Beautiful images, high quality sound track, worthy themes, excellent period authenticity, strong female performances

Cons:Male performances not as good, supernatural and implausible elements decrease engagement somewhat

The Bottom Line: Highly recommended Japanese masterpiece. Often rated among Top-100 films all-time (which slightly overstates its worth in my opinion).


This highly regarded masterpiece by Kenji Mizoguchi is a lovely example of his lyrical and poetic style of filmmaking. It was once listed among the ten greatest films ever in the Sight and Sound critic’s film poll, which ain’t shabby!

Historical Background: Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956) was a visual poet of Japan, making a total of 86 films between 1922 and his death at age 58. I have previously reviewed his film Sanshô, the Baliff (1954), which together with the present film are his two best known works among Western audiences. When Mizoguchi was seven years of age, his father gambled on a risky business venture that failed, leaving the family impoverished. When his mother then died while he was still a teen, his sister was given up for adoption and sold as a geisha. It is probably because of this circumstance that Mizoguchi films often relate to how the violence and greed of men has devastating consequences for women.

Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari is the Japanese title) was made in 1953, shortly after Kurosawa’s great and revolutionary film Rashômon (1950), which effectively introduced “realism” into Japanese cinema. Although Ugetsu is the Japanese equivalent of a ghost story, called kaidan eiga in Japan, it is a ghost story that is distinctly embedded in realism. Note, for example that the ghosts are indistinguishable in appearance from living people. The period setting is rendered with the attention to fine detail characteristic of realism and portions of the story focus of ordinary events of daily living, such as preparation of meals and the making of pottery.

The Story: Two brothers-in-law, Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) and Tôbei (Eitarô Ozawa), live side by side in a small village. Genjurô is a potter married to Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) while Tôbei is a farmer married to Genjurô’s sister, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito). Both men harbor ambitions. Genjurô’s ambition, driven by greed, is to make a fortune selling his high-quality pottery in the big city of Oziwa. Over the protests of his wife, he loads his wagon with his goods, despite the presence of dangerous bandits in the area. Tôbei’s ambition, on the other hand, is driven by a desire for glory. He wants to give up simple farming and become a glamorous samurai. Tôbei accompanies his brother-in-law on his trip to the city. For Genjurô, the gamble proves so successful that he is able to return to the village with gold and a gift of expensive fabrics for his wife. He hardly notices when she comments that his love is more important to her than the gift, instead setting immediately to work making more pottery items for his next trip. Tôbei is less fortunate. He meets a samurai during their trip and tries to enlist, but is laughed off as a mere “beggar” because he lacks armor and a sword.

An army of bandits sweeps into the village on the night before Genjurô and Tôbei’s next planned trip to the city, but the two men and their families hide successfully and even the pottery baking in the kiln is left unharmed. The two men decide that the safest course of action will be to travel across Lake Wakasa, this time, and to take their families along (Genjurô has one son). On their small skiff, they travel through thick fog and encounter a solo boatman who warns them of pirates. Genjurô decides to abandon his wife and child on the lakeshore while he, Tôbei, and Ohama continue across the lake. Arriving in the city, Genjurô sets up a street shop while Tôbei races off to pursue his dream of becoming a warrior, leaving Ohama on her own.

Genjurô’s fine pots sell briskly and one customer, in particular, is enamored with his artistry. He is invited to deliver some of his goods to the castle of a noblewoman, Lady Wakasa, who lives just outside the city. He is delighted to do so. Before undertaking the delivery, he stops at the fabric shop to contemplate what he will be able to purchase to please Miyagi. Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô) suddenly appears, offering to guide him to her castle. She is beautifully attired and made up in formal Japanese make-up and he is overcome by her beauty, following her in a near trance.

At the castle, Lady Wakasa initiates a subtle seduction routine. She flatters him by complementing his artistry and flits among the veils and screens that decorate her dwelling. She offers him a bath in a hot tub and later they recline in a garden. These are pleasures that Genjurô had not previously imagined. All the while, the pair are waited on by a servant woman who suggests to Genjurô that he is too important for a small village and ought to marry Lady Wakasa.

SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP TO THEMES IF YOU LIKE.

Meanwhile, Tôbei wanders about the city and accidentally kills a samurai who is carrying the skull of an opponent defeated in battle. Tôbei takes custody of the skull, presenting it to the samurai lord, leading all to believe that it was he who defeated the man in battle. The samurai lord, duly impressed, assigns Tôbei a horse and a small regiment, appointing him as the officer in charge. Filled with newborn conceit, Tôbei takes his men for a visit to a geisha house (Japanese house of prostitution) but is shocked to discover that Ohama, in the meantime, has been raped, kidnapped, and forced into prostitution at that very house.

Genjurô, meanwhile, takes a brief respite from his newfound life of indulgence at Lady Wakasa’s castle, returning to the city to check on his wares. While returning to the castle, he encounters a priest, who recognizes that Genjurô has been in contact with death and warns him that romancing a ghost is forbidden love. The priest places exorcism symbols all over Genjurô’s body as a safeguard. When Genjurô reaches the castle, Lady Wakasa is duly repelled. In point of fact, she goes up in flames and the castle itself is now revealed as nothing more than a burnt-out former dwelling where the mortal Lady Wakasa had once perished. Each duly disenchanted, Genjurô, Tôbei, and Ohama return to their small village. There, Genjurô initially finds his son abandoned, his wife apparently dead. Later, Genjurô’s overwhelming grief is relieved when his wife suddenly appears . . . . . or does she?

Themes: Mizoguchi himself stated that a principal purpose of the film was to convey the horror of war and the debilitating effect of it, both physically and spiritually, on the populace. For Japan, it was a painful lesson in relation to that country's ambitions of conquest and the resultant suffering in World War II and at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a lessen that is also apt today for Americans who, sitting at home in front of their televisions, can have no idea of the impacts of the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq on civilian populations in those countries.

A somewhat related but broader theme is one that runs through Buddhist philosophy: selfish desires, such as greed and fame, lead inevitably to suffering. That, in turn leads to the third theme – probably the one closest to Mizoguchi’s own heart – that the price of men indulging their selfish ambitions is usually borne by their women. Certainly that was Mizoguchi’s own experience as a child. He observed the suffering of his mother and his sister first hand. It could also be said to be the experience of Japan in World War II, where the civilian populations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki bore the brunt of the suffering brought on by the ambitions of the country’s military men. The theme of men of humble station abandoning their wives for glory or wealth is a recurrent one in Japanese literature and cinema and in the kaidan eiga in particular.

Production Values: One aspect of Mizoguchi’s film style that is especially appealing is that he makes no distinction between the subject matter of his films and the style of the telling. The production techniques are perfectly matched to the narrative. Mizoguchi was known for his long shots, preferring to film each scene straight through whenever possible. He learned to facilitate this approach by implementing graceful, flowing tracking shots. There is one scene in Ugetsu that is an especially impressive example of Mizoguchi’s camera technique. Lady Wakasa joins Genjurô in the hot tub, the camera then follows a splash of water, pans slowly across the lawn, and finds Genjurô and Lady Wakasa enjoying a picnic. Obviously, there had to be a splice involved, but the dissolve is done so delicately that it all appears to be one shot. The result is a kind of surreal treatment of time that invokes the Buddhist notion of time’s circularity. Overall, Mizoguchi’s mastery of images is nothing short of visual poetry. His background as a painter is always in evidence.

The soundtrack is superlative. Like Robert Bresson in France, Mizoguchi is skilled at using off-screen sounds to provide plot elements while keeping his on-screen images simple. The musical soundtrack includes a traditional Japanese string instrument to produce a unique wailing sound, especially during the castle scene where Lady Wakasa encounters the exorcism markings.

Masayuki Mori gave a respectable performance as Genjurô. His other credentials include appearances in Rashômon (1950) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Kinuyo Tanaka, who played Miyagi, also appeared in The Life of Oharu (1952), Sanshô, the Baliff (1954), and Ballad of Narayama (1958). Machiko Kyô, who played Lady Wakasa, gave an impassioned and nuanced performance. She was the most famous Japanese actresses of her day. Her resume includes Rashômon (1950), Gate of Hell (1953), and The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956).

With all of these strengths, why have I not rated this film five stars? Many critics would, by the way. Ugetsu often appears on critic lists as a Top-100 All-Time film. One weakness, in my opinion, is that the combination of supernatural elements and implausible elements limits the depth of viewer involvement in the film. Myths have their value but are also easy to dismiss for the very reason of their fanciful nature. Some of the implausible elements in Ugetsu, apart from the ghosts, include the ease with which Tôbei becomes a sumarai at the head of a regiment, Tôbei abandoning his wife in the city (why bring her along if that was the intent) and later finding her at the same brothel he chose to visit, and the rather scruffy Genjurô suddenly being an object of interest for the glamorous Lady Wakasa (ghost or not). Another weakness for me personally, as a viewer, was the painfully over-the-top performance by Eitarô Ozawa (billed as Saka Ozawa) in the role of Tôbei. It was cut from the same cloth as Toshiro Mifune’s performance as the bandit in Rashômon, which I found disconcerting as well.

Bottom-Line: Ugetsu is considered among the greatest Japanese films of all-time. Director Kenji Mizoguchi was awarded the Silver Lion at the 1953 Venice Film Festival for his effort. This is a lovely film for learning about Japanese culture, though not necessarily as immediately rewarding for Western audiences as the best of the Kurosawa films. Ugetsu is in Japanese with English subtitles and has a running time of 96 minutes.


Recommend this product? Yes

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Often cited by critics as one of the greatest films ever made, Kenji Mizoguchi's UGETSU includes the director's signature theme of the women oppressed...
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