Regarded by many to be on par with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon in its influence for popularizing Japanese film in the West, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is a fascinating mix of a period drama, ghost story and a morality tale that deserves all the praise it has received over the years for being one Japanese Cinema’s biggest masterpieces. It portrays a very enthralling medieval cautionary tale about ambition and (im)morality and what dire consequences they have if you fall into their thrall, dressed in beautiful cinematography. It wouldn’t be far off to call the film spellbinding, for there’s true magic in the way the film is able to weave in the supernatural elements to the story without them ever feeling out of place.
Mizoguchi proves to have a very good eye regarding the composition and skill to construct aesthetically striking visuals without being too lavish or grandiose. There are several instances in the film where you see some true ingenuity in film making, such as the scene where Genjurô is being seduced by Lady Wakasa while bathing. Instead of showing us the couple making passionate love, the camera instead turns away from the couple and starts to follow the water as it flows downwards the stream from the pool. It’s subtle and holds within its simplicity a gorgeous symbolism about the power of lust.
I probably could go on for hours about all the wonderful aspects of the film thanks to how multifaceted it is. The film is so rich with details and depth. You see the horrors of war portrayed in various forms, everything from villagers fleeing in terror as invading army come and loot their homes to senseless murder for scraps of food, not to mention brutal acts of rape. Over and over again you are exposed to the foolishness of man and what price you pay for it if you do not heed the word of reason, and nothing portrays this better than Tôbei’s subplot about how his blind ambition to become a samurai and seek glory ends up being worthless once he finally attains it. The story is a bit old fashioned the way it depicts women with little to no agency, they are left to suffer alone from the neglect and bad choices of their husbands, but it makes sense in the given context. Japan has always been very patriarchal and during the war ravaged Sengoku period it was always the women and children that suffered the most when they were left to fend off for themselves while the men were away fighting in bloody skirmishes.
The film is truly beautiful, and a timeless classic, well worth seeking out by anyone interested in Japanese cinema. It’s even in the public domain now so finding a copy shouldn’t be much of a problem.