Japanese social critics agree Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film, Street of Shame played a crucial role bringing
about the legal criminalization of prostitution. It was an issue that held
personal significance for the auteur, due to the fate of Suzuko, an older
sister sold into a geisha house when their father’s business plan to capitalize
on the shorter-than-expected Russo-Japanese War collapsed. Echoes of his family
experience can also be heard throughout Mizoguchi’s 4K restored masterpiece, Ugetsu (trailer here), which opens this
Friday at Film Forum.
Ugetsu is based on two stories
drawn from Akinari Ueda’s Ugetsu
Monogatari, a collection of traditional Ming-era Chinese supernatural tales
adapted to pre-Edo era Japan, but you would hardly know it from first thirty
minutes or so. Instead of rushing into the ghostly encounters, Mizoguchi takes
his time introducing his primary characters. Genjūro is a provincial potter,
who recognizes the impending war brings an opportunity to sell all his stock at
premium prices. Much to the chagrin of his faithful wife Miyagi, Genjūro’s
success encourages him to press his luck. While most of the village is primed
to evacuate, Genjūro maintains his kiln fires, hoping to finish enough stock
for an even more profitable trading excursion.
enlists the assistance of his neighbor, Tōbei, who has developed an almost
Quixotic ambition to become a samurai. To do so, he will need to purchase armor
and a spear, which he hopes to cover with his share of the pottery profits. His
wife Ohama considers his plan tantamount to madness. Even when the soldiers
overrun their village, the two neighbors cling to their vain obsessions. As a
result, they will tragically leave their wives in precariously vulnerable
positions. However, Genjūro will also jeopardize his very soul when he falls
under the spell of a temptress ghost during his second attempt to sell his
wares in the provincial capital at inflated wartime prices.
look at the ethereal Machiko Kyō is enough for us to tell she is a ghost, but Genjūro
is bewitched. In fact, Kyō’s eerie look, including long flowing garments and
tresses, would influence nearly every Japanese ghost film that followed Ugetsu. Yet, Mizoguchi’s film is just as
much a work of socially conscious cinema as it is a Kwaidan-esque yarn. The peasantry suffers terribly at the hands of
warring samurai in Ugetsu, especially
the women, but as is always the case in grand tragedy, their downfall is
precipitated by the men’s overreaching ambitions.
regular Kinuyo Tanaka is utterly heartbreaking as Miyagi. Her haunting
performance (so to speak) will literally have you doubting things you have
previously seen with your own eyes in a pivotal third act scene. Yet, Mitsuko Mito arguably offers an even more
forceful indictment of men’s follies, as the wronged Ohama. Despite the power
of their work, it is Kyō who became the iconic face of the film. Masayuki Mori
makes Genjūro a figure of acute pathos, but as was often the case with
Mizoguchi films, it is the women who define Ugetsu.
Ugetsu is one of a
handful of Japanese films, along with Kobayashi’s Kwaidan and Shindō’s Onibaba and
Kuroneko that prove supernatural “horror”
films can indeed reach the level of high art. It is one of the films everyone
ought to catch up with, especially now that it has been so carefully restored.
Very highly recommended for anyone who takes cinema seriously, Ugetsu opens this Friday (3/3) in New York,
at Film Forum.
Labels: Ghost movies, Japanese Cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi, Machiko Kyo