To understand why Kenji Mizoguchi is hailed by many critics (including me) as the greatest of all Japanese filmmakers, I point you to one brief but memorable scene in the middle of "Ugetsu" (1953).
Tobei (Sakae Ozawa), one of our protagonists, is a poor villager who dreams of becoming a samurai. In order to do so, he must first secure his own set of armor and weapons. He decides his only hope is to steal this expensive treasure from someone else, and goes out in search of a likely candidate. We have all watched similar scenes in movies before. Our hero needs a quick change of clothing so he soon knocks out some poor faceless nobody (someone probably described as HENCHMAN #1 in the screenplay) to get what he needs. No fuss, no muss. We don't give the nameless goon another thought.
Mizoguchi adopts a different approach. As Tobei skulks along in the shadows, we cut to a conversation between two characters we have not met before: a general and one of his samurai. The general has been mortally wounded, and he orders his soldier to behead him in order to end the suffering. The samurai does as he is told. He turns from his dead master and stumbles away. With tears welling up in his eyes, he is about to sit down in order to gather his emotions. Just then, Tobei leaps out and stabs the vulnerable samurai to death; Tobei claims the general's head as his own kill and parlays it into a (short-lived) sting as a full-fledged samurai in his own right.
What a startling and powerful scene. How are we supposed to feel about Tobei now? Can we ever forget the samurai and his general, characters we have only seen for a few fleeting moments? This it the special genius of Mizoguchi, at least in his best films: the ability to breathe life into every character; to weave a complex web of relationships and motivations that makes his films uniquely rich and rewarding.
We see this sensibility at play again in the central sequence of "Ugetsu." Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), our main protagonist, is a potter who brings his wares to the big city in hopes of scoring a major sale. There he meets Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo, who also played the woman in "Rashomon") who asks him to bring his finest crafts to her manor. There he falls madly in love with her; as if in a fever dream, he forgets about his wife and child and agrees to marry Wakasa.
Pretty soon we realize that Wakasa is not your typical lady, but rather a ghost (the pale-white make-up is a hint; the disembodied voice of her dead father is a better one). Genjuro is helpless in her clutches until he meets a traveling priest who gives him the power to break free of her spell. But rather than a scene full of spooky howls and flickering candles, Mizoguchi fashions an emotionally powerful confrontation. A tearful Wakasa begs Genjuro to stay with her. Her nurse (also a ghost, of course) explains that Wakasa died young without knowing the love of a man; isn't she entitled to some happiness even in death? The scene is wrenching. We understand why Genjuro wants to escape; he has a family of his own, after all, and he must remain among the living. But he also promised his love to Wakasa, who returned it tenfold though perhaps a bit too much for a mere mortal to handle. Everyone is both right and wrong in his or her own way, and each of the characters is fully alive (even the dead ones) in this dynamic and complex scene.
"Ugetsu" is more frequently listed as "Ugetsu monogatari" which translates roughly as ‘Tales of Moonlight and Rain", the title of an 18th-century collection of ghost stories by Akinari Ueda. Ueda's collection, along with a short story by Guy de Maupassant ("How He Got the Legion of Honor"), provides the inspiration for the film, though Mizoguchi and screenwriters Matsutaro Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda (one of Mizoguchi's most frequent collaborators) relocate the story to 19th-century Japan.
The story concerns two couples: Genjuro and his wife Miyagi (Mizoguchi regular Kinuyo Tanaka) and Tobei and his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito). Each of the husbands is blinded by ambition (Genjuro for gold, Tobei to become a samurai) and each subjects his wife to terrible hardship as a result of it. As is typical in a Mizoguchi film, the women are called on to make terrible sacrifices due to the selfishness of the men in their lives. Each woman meets a separate bad fate, and both husbands get the opportunity to atone for their sins though each in a very different manner.
In "Ugetsu" ghosts travel freely among the living. Japan, as depicted in "Ugetsu," is a country ravaged by civil war, and the violence has so brutally marred the land that the border between this world and the afterlife has become a decidedly blurry one. One of the great pleasures (one of many) in "Ugetsu" is the naturalistic approach Mizoguchi takes to his various ghosts and spirits. Lady Wakasa walks through the marketplace like any other customer. Ghosts do not jump out of walls screaming "Boo!" but are integrated into the domestic space; in one scene, a character returns as a ghost only to cook a pot of stew and tidy up. A ghost ship encountered on the lake is both real and not real at the same time, and it is certainly a tangible object.
Like Ozu, Mizoguchi shoots most of his scenes in long master shots; there is minimal editing within any single scene. Unlike Ozu, Mizoguchi moves his camera constantly (most of the scenes were shot with the camera on a crane), gliding both horizontally and vertically to create a gentle, lyrical effect. I am tempted to push my interpretation a little too far and claim that the hovering camera haunts the film, but I will resist the urge. "Ugetsu" is a beautiful film even if the people in it are sometimes ugly. Full credit is due to renowned cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa whose black-and-white photography is breathtaking.
"Ugetsu" often places very highly in critical polls, and is usually considered Mizoguchi's masterpiece. I actually prefer two other Mizoguchi films (also critical favorites): "The Story of the Late (or Last) Chrysanthemums" (1939), and especially "Sansho the Bailiff" (1954), one of the most devastating films I have ever watched. Regardless, "Ugetsu" is one of the defining films not only of Japanese cinema but all of cinema, and your film knowledge is incomplete until you have seen this gem. More than once.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Though this is a high-def, digitally restored transfer, a lot of the damage to the original source material is still visible, esp. some prominent scratches. I assume the print was so badly deteriorated that the restoration could only be pushed so far before the original material would be compromised. Despite the visible scratches, the light/dark contrast is excellent and beauty of Kazuo Miyagawa's black and white photography is well preserved. This isn't a pristine version of the film, but it is still the best you are ever likely to see.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.
The Criterion release of "Ugetsu" is a two-disc set.
Disc One features the restored transfer of the film accompanied by a full-length commentary track by critic Tony Rayns. In addition to a trailer, the disc includes three interviews. "Two Worlds Intertwined" is a 14-min. interview with director Masahiro Shinoda who describes the impact Ugetsu had when it was released. "Process and Production" is a 20-min. interview with Tokuzo Tanaka, Mizoguchi's assistant director on "Ugetsu." Both of these interviews were newly recorded for Criterion in Tokyo in May 2005. A 10-minute interview with "Ugetsu" cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, originally recorded in 1992 for the Criterion laserdisc, rounds out the offerings on Disc One.
Disc Two offers a feature-length (150 min.) documentary titled "Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director." Directed by Kaneto Shindo in 1975, this sprawling two-and-a-half hour documentary provides a font of information about Mizoguchi who passed away in 1956 from leukemia. Unfortunately, the documentary focuses exclusively on a biographical approach with virtually no critical discussion of Mizoguchi's films or techniques. Perhaps I am wrong, but I think that only in a Japanese documentary would we be treated to a loving closeup of an object identified as Mizoguchi's "favorite urine bottle."
The two discs each come in their own keep case, both of which are tucked into an attractive boxed set. Also included in the set is a rather thick booklet with an essay by Phillip Lopate and three of the short stories from which the film was adapted (two by Ueda, one by de Maupassant.)
If you are unfamiliar with Mizoguchi, it is probably because of the limited availability of his films in America. For whatever reason, his movies were always difficult to find on VHS and, as far as I know, only "47 Ronin" (1941) and now "Ugetsu" have ever been released on a Region 1 DVD. Don't let that fool you. Mizoguchi is every bit the master (more so, in my opinion) as the better-known Akira Kurosawa or even the great Yasujiro Ozu. I have only had the opportunity to see a handful of Mizoguchi films myself, and I hope "Ugetsu" is only the first of many upcoming Mizoguchi DVD releases.