Hauntingly beautiful. Exquisite. Sublime. These superlatives have cropped up whenever this movie is brought up. It's a film that, along with Rashomon, help introduce Japanese cinema to American audiences. When I first watched it I knew it was special but it had this elusive quality to it. It was only until I watched it again that its qualities seized me.
Kenji Mizoguchi's best known work announced him as someone who filmmakers and critics would revere. Ugetsu adapts the stories of Ueda Akinari, first published in 1771, and casts its characters in the midst of a civil war in 16th century Japan. It tells us parallel stories of women who are confounded by social mores and the greed of the men they love.
Rather than it be a reflection of reality, something Yasujiro Ozu, another Japanese filmmaker seemed more attuned to with Tokyo Story, Mizoguchi creates a fairy tale-esque world. The kind of stuff that would have Guillermo Del Toro giggling to himself in ghoulish glee.
Filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda commented that Mizoguchi was a supreme realist while also being a supreme fantasist. Quite so. With Ugetsu, Mizoguchi broke through the barriers confined to realism and sought out to create a fantastical realm around the subjects he was depicting. This type of narrative is intoxicating in the way the director uses it. The narrative blends reality, memory and fantasy seamlessly so the viewer is always kept of their toes. We've seen this type of storytelling before in European cinema with Jean Vigo's L'Atalante and Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast where the fantastical overwhelms the realistic. Now Eastern Asia cinema tackles it in a hauntingly lyrical way. It blends the two together in a way that unites them. It's as if Mizoguchi is saying that this is one world.
Another thing to note with Mizoguchi is the moving camera. As opposed to Yasujiro Ozu who keeps his camera locked down, Mizoguchi allows his camera to roam freely. Kazuo Miyagawa who shot Kurosawa's Rashomon and Yojimbo, along with some of Ozu's work, was Mizoguchi's cameraman at the time.
Mizoguchi once said to his cameraman, Miyagawa "Movies are like picture scrolls." With the help of his roaming camera, exquisite imagery and haunting tones, Mizoguchi helped created a scroll of indelible images that have captured the minds of filmmakers and audiences alike.