Watching Criterion’s restored print of Ugetsu reminds me of the way the proud colors of the Sistine Chapel ceiling remained buried for centuries under a somber patina of grime. The shimmering beauty of this movie, one of the greatest to come from Japan and certainly one of the greatest ever shot in black-and-white, was virtually invisible for decades no thanks to the wretched condition of the prints that were screened at festivals and used for the earlier home video transfers. When I first watched it on VHS all those years ago I almost had to second-guess how lovely the movie really was. Now, on the new DVD, there’s nothing to guess at.
Ugetsu has more than beauty to its credit. The plot is relatively familiar territory (it was adapted from a series of short stories), but the telling is not — and the greater understandings drawn from the material by the director, Kenji Mizoguchi, stayed with me every bit as much as the gothic mood of the piece. Mizoguchi was one of Japan’s first great directors, starting in the silent era and continuing through almost to the mid-Fifties. Ugetsu was made in 1953 and borrows equally from the devices of the silent and sound eras, since it is almost always better to show an image in a movie when a line of dialogue might be used instead.
Potter Genjuro and his brother Tobei eke out what they can from the earth;
Tobei has ludicrous ambitions about becoming one of the very soldiers they despise.
The film is set during Japan’s Sengoku period, when various fiefdoms all went to war with each other and the peasants were being ground underfoot. In a rough little village somewhere in the countryside, we see two men: a potter, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), and his brother Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), a farmer with ambitions about becoming a soldier. The opening scenes establish their relationships and work habits masterfully. Genjuro and his wife have a son, and are poor but happy; Tobei is fitfully distracted and has to constantly be yanked back into line. He wants to be someone else, somewhere else — as does Genjuro, but Tobei is simply more upfront about manifesting it.
Times are hard and dangerous. Genjuro and Tobei rush into the city to sell their wares despite the presence of the armies; a peasant who encountered one was as good as dead. They return with plenty of money, and Genjuro buys his wife a magnificent kimono with it, but she’s less interested in the riches than she is in the marriage. Tobei is similarly deluded: he runs into a group of soldiers bivouacked in town begs to join them, and gets humiliated. Tobei is not a bad man, but his friends and family are dismayed by his fascination with becoming a soldier — why would he want to become the very thing they are constantly living in fear of?
The most beautiful and haunting scene in Ugetsu:
the crossing by boat, and the subsequent parting at the shore.
The scenes that follow this are masterful and spellbinding, and do a great deal to establish the eerie tone of the movie as a whole. Genjuro and his wife are in the middle of firing another batch of clay when soldiers come charging through the area — conscripting men by force, stealing women, looting houses. They frantically pack what food they can get their hands on and hide out in the forest, waiting for the soldiers to move on. In the morning, they break open the kiln — it was blazing the whole time — and discover to their amazement everything has come out perfectly. They rush to pack everything in straw, and then set out by boat to sell it.
What’s not coming across, of course, is the magnificent way all of this looks. When Genjuro and his wife leave for the forest it’s in the dead of night, and it feels like night — the lighting is indirect and spare, and what stands out most are the actor’s faces, glowing like mirrors between the black trees. The boat scene itself is among my very favorite moments in all of cinema — fog hangs low over the water, curling around everything in the stylized way that it might in an ink painting. When they come across a dying man in a boat, begging them not to go forward, they agree to split up and head back to be swallowed once again by the mist. Eeriest of all, though, is the sight of Miyagi, Genjuro’s wife, standing with their child on the shore, calling out to him again and again as he leaves.
Lady Wakasa's ethereal beauty becomes a trap for Genjuro,
but it's the potter who turns out to be more of the demon in their relationship of the damned.
While selling his wares, Genjuro is approached by a noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo). He’s to bring a delivery of his craftsmanship to her house, which means not only money but recognition, something else Genjuro has been craving. The design of Wakasa’s house is itself a quiet masterpiece of foreboding: the outer gates are dilapidated and choked with weeds, but the inside is immaculate and untouched by time. There is a very good reason for all this: Wakasa is not a mortal woman but a ghost hungry for companionship, and Genjuro seems only too happy to leave his wife and child behind for her charms. “Do not bury such great talents!” Wakasa begs him, and there is a magnificent moment where they lie blissfully near a river, one cheek pressed against the other. Kyo played the woman in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, and is all the more elegant and enticing here; her shaved and painted eyebrows and thick face powder make her seem all the more appropriately ethereal.
Tobei goes through a parallel development of his own. He clownishly buys himself a suit of armor with what little money he has, abandons his wife, and eventually earns himself a measure of fame for killing an enemy samurai lord. It’s not as if Tobei has done anything particularly courageous, either: he ambushed the man after he was done helping one of his comrades commit seppuku. Even when he presents the head to a commander, he isn’t believed — but they reward him richly, and there is a moment of biting irony where other footmen beg him for a few words of sage council in the arts of combat. It becomes all the more biting when he realizes one of the prostitutes in the drinking-house he’s in is his former wife. Like his brother, Tobei wanted recognition for his works at any cost, no matter how self-important or foolish. Genjuro, on the other hand, is more sinning than sinned against: Yes, Wakasa is a dangerous ghost, but it was he who never told her he was married, he who has done more wrong than she.
Tobei is rewarded for killing a samurai, but no reward can blot out his abandoning his wife and family.
Mizoguchi remains undeservedly obscure outside of Japan. Many existing Japanese directors take their cues from him (as they do the better-known Ozu or Kurosawa), and more than a few Western ones as well. Ugetsu is probably his most widely-known and –respected film, but he directed dozens of others that have as much to savor. His Sansho the Bailiff (made shortly after Ugetsu) has many thematic and imagistic parallels to this film, right down to the concluding images of a broken man returning home to find that nothing remains of what he left behind. He also made a very good if overlong version of the 47 Ronin story in 1941 — commissioned, ironically enough, as a morale-boosting exercise by the Japanese Ministry of Information. It didn’t work as propaganda (it stiffed commercially) but it certainly worked as cinema, and it fit nicely into Mizoguchi’s tendency to revisit classical themes like the story of famed swordsman Musashi Miyamoto or print-maker Utamaro’s various romantic dalliances.
Every famous director has a trademark style, and in Mizoguchi’s case it was paraphrased as “one scene equals one cut.” He tended to shoot every scene as a single take whenever possible, but they don’t seem stagy — if anything, they are all the more meticulous and alive for it. His camera glides, much as Jean Renoir’s did; watch The Rules of the Game back to back with Ugetsu and see how alike the camera movements are. When Tobei kills the enemy samurai, Mizoguchi shows the kill in a single unbroken shot (one of many such moments in the film, some so subtly assembled we never notice it). The camera movements are so fluid and careful we don’t realize how much the shot has changed until it’s actually over.
Ugetsu's spellbinding images shine all the more lushly on the new DVD,
freed at last from decades of decay and abuse thanks to a digital restoration.
Many people remain averse to black-and-white films as a rule, which I find incomprehensible. I suspect at least part of that is because until recently many such films were in terrible condition; with DVD and the superlative restoration work done for them, the excuse no longer applies. In Ugetsu’s case, there isn’t a throwaway shot in the movie, and many of them are proof that films in black-and-white are not “missing” anything. Genjuro’s flight from Wakasa’s house is even more amazing; the scene is suffused in darkness, and yet somehow there is light enough for us to see his terrified expression. And once again there is that grand moment where the boat slowly emerges from the fog with Genjuro’s wife rowing placidly and singing about the impermanence of all things.