Thursday, February 11, 2010

#309: Ugetsu

(Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

With the exception of Tokyo Story and Seven Samurai (or perhaps the even better Rashomon), Ugetsu is the most praised of all Japanese films, and represents the pinnacle of its director's career. Mizoguchi - along with Ozu - is often held in higher esteem than Kurosawa by critics who are quick to dismiss the more Western-friendly director's style as out of step with traditional Japanese aesthetics. Considering the fact that I have never been to Japan I am not one to argue, but I nevertheless find such arguments dull, and I think they miss the point in the worst sense.

Still, it is undeniable that Ugetsu is essentially Japanese, not necessarily in its theme - which is at its most basic the timeless idea that the evils and sins of man are most often visited upon the powerless, in this and most cases the woman - but in its presentation of that theme and its attitude towards this universal truth. The film is that most pleasing of all story traditions from the culture, a Japanese ghost story, but it is also a deeply poetic and (dare I say?) Zen meditation on its topic. The movie makes no judgments on its characters, even the two brothers who are consumed by greed and ambition, but instead accepts their choices as part of life.

Perhaps I play into the hands of the critics when I say that, while Ugetsu moved me, I don't think I would consider it a great film on the level of many of the Kurosawa movies I have already seen. Certainly many of the crane shots, the artful lighting, and the memorable performances could easily rank with the best of cinema. But movies need that undefinable characteristic in order to really have an impact, and I guess this one just didn't have that for me.

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