Sunday, 2 February 2014

Ugetsu (1953) - ★★★★★

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writers: Yoshikata Yoda (screenplay), Akinari Ueda (stories), Matsutarô Kawaguchi (adaptation)
Stars: Kinuyo Tanaka, Masayuki Mori, Mitsuko Mito, Eitarô Ozawa, Machiko Kyô

Set in the midst of the Azuchi-Momoyama period (between 1573 to 1603), Ugetsu is the tale of four people whose lives were ravaged by war and the savagery of men. Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Genjûrô (Masayuki Mori) both have a child together, and make a living by farming and making pottery. Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) and Tôbee (Eitarô Ozawa) are close relations I believe, who live nearby in the same village. When their village is raided, the four must do all they can to stay alive, and thrive in a time filled with conflict and chaos. It is a harrowing story of greed, lust, ambition, the will to survive, and the supernatural.

One of the most exquisite gifts that Ugetsu Monogatari gives the audience is the feeling of sheer panic when the soldiers storm the village. It wasn’t a sweeping, epic sequence such as those in Seven Samurai (1954). It was more subdued, but filled with plenty of emotion from the characters. I felt sucked into the moment, weighed down by a heavy heart that contained stress and uncertainty. One of the biggest reasons I felt this way was because the cinematography created such a claustrophobic feeling in this small village. The calm, quietness of the environment surrounding the people, mixed with the emphasized sounds of gunshots, truly displayed the horrific severity of the situation our protagonists were in. Not to mention, the swiftness of the invasion caught me off guard, increasing my emotions by ten-fold. It may not be filled with gorgeous landscape shots, or intricate cinematography, but the emotion of the characters and foreboding of dark events to come is what makes this a grippingly beautiful film. 

One of the most memorable sequences in Ugetsu happens to be one of the boldest, most horrific of its time. How many films made before 1953 have insinuated that a rape occurred? I’m sure there have been some, but the only one I know of is Gone With the Wind (1939). I feel that this sequence is one of the most important in the history of Japanese cinema. I can’t think of a better way to illustrate the savagery of the period the film was set in. Any intelligent human being knows that countless numbers of women were raped throughout times over war, and Ugetsu really broke the mold and made the audience face that reality. The most genius aspect of that sequence was at the very end, when the rapists threw a few coins on the ground to pay the woman for her “services.” I cannot begin to describe how upset this sequence made me, which is one of the reasons I treasure this film so much. It has the power to make me feel these incredibly strong emotions, which is something I’m always thankful for.

Much of the film focuses on desire, pleasure, and ignorant bliss between Genjûrô and Lady Wakasa. Their divine, adulterous moments together display absolutely beautiful cinematography. Kazuo Miyagawa’s talent with the camera went a long way in making me understand the emotions of Genjûrô. One would think that no matter how persuasive a “beautiful enchantress” could be, they would never do something as heinous as abandoning their wife and child. On surface value alone, I condemned Genjûrô as a completely despicable bastard. As the film delved deeper into the relationship between him and Lady Wakasa, I could sense nothing but pure joy, like every one of his dreams came true all at once. It was like he was a young man again, completely reborn with a world of possibilities. That is a far cry from the turmoil he faced not long before he met her. The way the camera followed their movements, captured the closeness of their spellbound faces, and faded from one love scene to the next, went a long way in making me see why he made such a bold, selfish decision. To make me truly care about the motivation and feelings of such a man is the mark of a masterful work of cinema. 

Mitsuko Mito as Ohama.
“Success always comes at a point, and we pay in suffering.” – Ohama

Mitsuko Mito gave an incredibly realistic performance as Ohama, a woman pushed to the edge by her selfish, foolish husband. She really moved me after a particularly horrific sequence, where she yelled “bastards,” and collapsed on the front porch of a Buddhist temple. She had me completely convinced of her anger, frustration, depression, sadness, pain, and most importantly, suffering. Mito conveyed all of these emotions in a role that she seems to have been born to play. Her natural ability to play this tortured, very real character just goes to show that she’s an actress with pure talent.

Machiko Kyô as Lady Wakasa.

“All I wish is to remain forever by your side. For all eternity.” – Lady Wakasa

Machiko Kyô gives one of my favourite performances of all time in Ugetsu. She played Lady Wakasa, who had such a divine presence, and a truly serene manner. I’ve seen many Japanese films with female characters much like her, yet she outshines them all. The way she controlled her voice and actions were akin to the most professional of geisha. As the plot thickens, we see her transform into a being filled with such anguish and desperation. I truly felt for Lady Wakasa, mainly because Kyô conveyed such a deep sadness during a scene where her shocking secret is revealed. I shall never forget her begging pleas to Genjûrô, which were so powerful they gave me chills.

Kinuyo Tanaka as Miyagi.
Kinuyo Tanaka played Miyagi, who was a kind, devoted wife and mother that would do anything to protect her family. I immediately identified with her character, and felt bound to her story above all else in the film. I think a lot of that has to do with the kind, personable nature of Tanaka, who was perfect for the role. Much of the sheer panic I felt was due to her exquisite reactions to the horrors that she faces. The worry on her face and in her voice did wonders in keeping such a tense, unpredictable atmosphere. In contrast, the love and softness towards her child is what raised the stakes so much higher for my emotional involvement in this movie. The highlight of her performance for me was when she peered outside of a window, and heard the piercing screams of a woman begging for help. Tanaka’s face during that scene will forever be seared into my memory. It is truly extraordinary acting.

Masayuki Mori as Genjûrô.
Masayuki Mori was terrific in what I consider the biggest role of the film. He was flawless in his portrayal of a man desperate to succeed, a man captivated by a divine lady, and in the end, a man who deeply regretted his selfish choices. I couldn’t imagine anyone playing the role better than Mori. He was just perfect for this role, showing an endless array of emotions. His greatest moment was during the reveal of Lady Wakasa’s secret, where he showed such pitiable remorse, then went into a wild panic-attack. Eitarô Ozawa also gave an outstanding performance as Tôbee, a man so blinded by his own ambition to become a samurai, that he left his wife alone in the world with nothing to help her get by. Ozawa gave his character such pathetic, desperate dimensions. He was remarkable as the lamentable fool.

I could imagine thousands of essays written about Ugetsu. It has so much to offer the world, with a moral at its core that strikes as clearly as one of Aesop’s fables. Its messages are just so clear-cut, showing how a man’s strong ambitions can turn to greed, and that greed can devastate others in unimaginable ways. There are so many themes, and each one is explored in such beautiful detail. From the heart-stopping invasions, to the heart-breaking struggle to survive, Ugetsu had me feeling many powerful emotions. This is the kind of film that people will look to for guidance, and find answers to crafting a story into a masterpiece. It’s a moving, unforgettable tour de force of cinema.

For more reviews of classic Japanese cinema, visit my 

1 comment:

  1. This film here actually happens to be my favourite of the works of director Kenji Mizoguchi. And I would most definitely agree that it is a masterpiece.