Film Review: Ugetsu

A still from Ugetsu. A noblewoman approaches Genjuro, our lead.

Ugetsu (1953)

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, Written by Matsutaro Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda

Sometimes, the noble narrative overshadows real strife.

This might be David Lynch’s “purpose,” as it were; to expose via dualities (and subsequently muddying them) that where there is the kooky Twin Peaks, there is always the grieving mess of Fire Walk With Me. In fact, Fire Walk With Me carries that duality within itself; where there is the romanticized, heightened, devastating murder of Laura Palmer, there is also the pedestrian, disinteresting killing of Theresa Banks. The latter serves as a tonic which responds to rough edges smoothed over by the slicker, more romantic work. War films are often praised for carrying this into fruition; most modern crime films aim for the same goal.

So Ugetsu responds to the Edo period jidaigeki. Samurai, both noble and epic, serve as a romantic aspiration of the lower class. But this goal, whether attainable or not, ignores the horrors inflicted upon those who fail to ascend to the nobility, or those left behind by those trying.

These narratives have a significant hill to overcome; they often arrive in the costume of a heightened romantic style, only to deliver something much more pedestrian. On top of that, perhaps the icon of the sengoku-jidai, Akira Kurosawa, plumbed similar questions Rashomon three years before Ugetsu, interrogating the period long before creating its most iconic images. Both also share their depiction of the violence of bandits and the rapes they commit, leaving each to be far ahead of their time when compared to Western cinema.

Mizoguchi, in part, is responding to his own past, and the history of his country. This is a post-war film, and during the war, he directed “The 47 Ronin,” perhaps the film opposite the aforementioned Lynchian duality. It’s a film largely centering around tantalization and the ways in which we rationalize greed as much as it is about interrogating the myth of the noble warrior.

All that is to say the film is thematically rich, especially given the context of its release and its director’s history. Yet I found myself constantly distracted during its running time, often disinterested by its imagery and score, especially in its first half. It likely would feel more imaginative, more abstract, to those wholly unfamiliar with Japanese folktales. It similarly would feel more properly like a fable and more romantic to those who are wholly enveloped in the Japanese folktale, those who have it as a shared cultural memory, a constant as forceful as the American Gatsby archetype.

Twice I tried to watch Ugetsu, and twice I found myself fading in focus. This is not to say it’s incompetent, but it merely was not capturing my imagination. It is certainly a great primer in “how to tell stories with cinema;” its storytelling is so clear as to almost feel “by the book.” This time, it recaptured my attention and thinking. But I cannot pretend it ever truly had my imagination.

3/5

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