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Written by: on May 11th, 2006

Theatrical Release Date: Japan, 1953
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Cast: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyô , Kinuyo Tanaka, Eitarô Ozawa

DVD released: November 8, 2005
Approximate running time: 97 mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Rating: NR
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release: Criterion
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $39.95

Genjuro and Tobei are neighbours in a small village in the midst of civil war. Both dream of greater things, Genjuro dreams of greater luxury for his family through his pottery’s success and Tobei dreams of being a samurai. Success at market convinces both that if they can sell enough pots that their wishes will become true. Genjuro fires up a huge order of pots but his village is ravaged by marauding troops and Tobei and Genjuro decide to leave with their wives, Miyagi and Ohama. Genjuro and Miyagi split up because of fears of pirates and once there is enough pots sold Tobei leaves his wife, Ohama, to buy armour. Ohama is assailed by soldiers and Tobei takes advantage of his armour and good luck to bring his new master the head of an enemy. When Tobei and Ohama meet again she has become a whore and his success in battle seems pointless. Meanwhile, Genjuro becomes entranced by a ghost and forgets his family. Once he is exorcised by a priest Genjuro returns home to find Miyagi but has he given up one ghost for another?

Kenji Mizoguchi brought the stories of Akinari Ueda to the screen in Ugetsu. Mizoguchi was a contemporary of Ozu and a young Kurosawa whose reputation is an equal of the both of them. Mizoguchi largely made films which concentrated on women and which were period pieces. Mizoguchi usually cast Kinuyo Tanaka as his female lead. Ugetsu is set in the 16th century around the time of the civil war in Japan.

The central characters in Ugetsu are men but the consequences of their actions lead to death and prostitution for their wives. The overarching ambition of Tobei to become a samurai means that he deserts his wife to a gang rape and a life as a prostitute. When he sees her again he is a proud samurai with his own vassals and she is fighting a client for her pay. Similarly the more loyal Genjuro is bewitched by the finery of Lady Wakasa and forgets his wife. His wife tries to return to their own home but is robbed and murdered by hungry deserting soldiers. When Genjuro returns he swaps the ghost of Lady Wakasa for the wife he would like to be there when he returns. The Ghost of Miyagi stays with him as he chooses to stay at home and look after their sun – his dreams of advancement forgotten.

Like all of Mizoguch’s films the meticulous mise-en-scene of Ugetsu is incredible and the ambition of some of the scenes is notable. When the four neighbours escape their village on a boat, the scene on the river as a ghostly boat and it’s dying occupant pass is amazing for a studio set (see left). Similarly when Genjuro finally returns to his village he enters his home to find it empty and in one glorious long take he runs around his house and re-enters to find the ghostly Miyagi tending the stove. To do this without cuts is incredible and shows the mastery of Mizoguchi with long takes. Mizoguchi also composes some great images – when Miyagi is killed by bandits we see them sitting eating the food in the next field as she lays dying with her son on her back.

The tightness of the narrative in Ugetsu is also worthy of comment. It is amazing that four separate stories are so seamlessly followed from the initial framing device of being neighbours in just over 90 minutes. Fumio Hayasaka’s score is a wonderful thing using atonal noises rather than orchestral grandeur to create the wonderfully ghostly atmosphere at Wakasa manor. Exacting costumes, terrific set design and beautiful cinematography add to what is an all-time great piece of cinema.

Ugetsu is one of the greatest films ever made.

The DVD:

Criterion have produced an amazing package here with 2 discs and one book. The main feature is on one disc with interviews with the assistant director and cinematographer, commentary from Tony Rayns and an appreciation from Masahiro Shinoda. Trailers also appear on this disc. The main feature is presented in 1.33:1 and the transfer is superior to any previous releases. There is damage to the print but it is occasional and the overall look of the film is soft but sharp enough. The contrast levels are excellent. The subtitles are removable and very good.

The second disc is given over to Kaneto Shindo’s film biography and appreciation of Mizoguchi. This follows his whole career using scenes from his films and talking to his crew and people from his hometown. At 150 minutes this is seriously comprehensive stuff.
The book contains a piece from Philip Lopate on the critical reception of Ugetsu and includes three of the short stories that the film uses.

Comprehensive and possibly the finest release of Criterion’s excellent history. Ugetsu is a terrific package of one of the crowning moments of Cinema.

For more information about Ugetsu and other titles released by Criterion visit their website. 

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