Appellate Judge Dan Mancini says it's about time director Kenji Mizoguchi got a little love, Criterion-style.
"The fruit of experience is beauty, but only a master craftsman can create such beauty."—Lady Wakasa
Kenji Mizoguchi is one of the most important and influential Japanese directors, occupying a place alongside Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Mikio Naruse. Despite his stature, an Image Entertainment release of 1941's The 47 Ronin (now out of print) was the only Mizoguchi film available on DVD in North America since the format's introduction. Until now, The Criterion Collection has gone a long way in remedying a shameful situation with this gorgeous two-disc release of Ugetsu, the film that is, by most accounts, chief among Mizoguchi's masterpieces.
Facts of the Case
Genjuro (Masayuki Mori, Rashomon) is a potter living in a rural village near Lake Biwa during the civil wars of the 16th century. He travels with his brother, Tobei (Sakae Okawa, Scandal)—who dreams of becoming a samurai—to Nagashima to sell his wares. Travel is dangerous, as the roadways are filled with warring samurai and bandits out to take advantage of the chaos of war, so Genjuro leaves his wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka, The Life of Oharu), in their village to watch over their young son.
Once in Nagashima, Genjuro's pottery sells well. Tobei squanders his share of the profits, believing he'll be accepted as a samurai if he has a suit of armor and a spear. Luck falls into his lap in the form of a powerful general's head, which he presents as a trophy to a rival warlord in exchange for the status of samurai. His celebration is cut short, though, by the discovery that his wife, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), was raped during his absence and has fallen into a life of prostitution.
Meanwhile, Genjuro's life is changed when Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo, Floating Weeds), the daughter of deceased warlord Kutsuki, takes an interest in his craftsmanship. The fallen aristocrat wishes to marry the potter, and he hides the existence of his wife and son in order to have the beautiful woman. Genjuro discovers a terrible secret about Wakasa that drives him back to Miyagi, but with samurai and bandits roaming all over the country, will his return be too late?
In one of Ugetsu's signature scenes, Genjuro returns home from his
long absence in Nagashima. He passes through his humble one-room tenement, and
it is dark and empty. Exiting, he circles around the outside of the home, enters
the front door again, and Miyagi is there, the hearth glowing with a warm fire.
The entire sequence is achieved in a single shot during which the camera is in
constant motion, flowing smoothly along with Genjuro's movements. The shot was
executed by Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon,
Floating Weeds, Yojimbo, Tokyo Olympiad), perhaps
the most acclaimed cinematographer in the history of Japanese cinema, but it's
the epitome of Mizoguchi's visual style. The director famously proclaimed that a
film should unfurl like a scroll, a wash of nearly constant motion (perhaps as a
gentle jab at Kurosawa and his penchant for transitional wipes, Mizoguchi
asserted movies should not turn pages like a book). Cuts are few and far between
in Ugetsu. It is
One reason Mizoguchi's visual style is so transparent to the viewer is that his lengthy shots are meticulously executed to keep the narrative moving forward. One of the purposes of cutting is to increase a film's pacing, but Ugetsu is not a languid picture despite Mizoguchi's restraint with the Moviola. In his excellent audio commentary, Tony Rayns discusses at length Mizoguchi's one-sided rivalry with Kurosawa. He resented Rashomon's enormous international success and Golden Lion win at the 1951 Venice Film Festival because Kurosawa had made so few films compared to Mizoguchi, who'd been plugging away since the silent era. Mizoguchi apparently made Ugetsu, in part, as a response to Rashomon (since both films were made for Daiei, Mizoguchi's picture even reunites two of Rashomon's stars, Masayuki Mori and Machiko Kyo). Indeed, the pacing of the two films is similar and unusually quick (for Mizoguchi, anyway), considering both are the sort of philosophically ponderous movies we expect to approach their subject matter with a languid intellectualism.
Mizoguchi's oeuvre, like Naruse's, is distinguished by a preoccupation with the plight of women in Japanese society. Ugetsu exemplifies his sensibilities, pitting a female longing for cohesion and family against a male drive for status, wealth, and sexual power. In the conflicts between the two couples—Genjuro and Miyagi, Tobei and Ohama—the women want nothing more than their husbands at their sides, regardless of their humble social status and meager financial prospects. Genjuro and Tobei aren't satisfied with love and companionship; they're too swept up in their dreams of wealth and prestige to find value in their spouses. Tobei appears to be the more childish of the two men—his pie-in-the-sky dream of obtaining the status of samurai lacks even a moment's thought of the effort and danger such an unlikely leap of caste would require—yet Genjuro is, in fact, even more stunted. His willingness to leave both Miyagi and his young son in harm's way while he secrets his wares to the marketplace of Nagashima is incredibly ignoble. The ease with which Lady Wakasa seduces him through her physical beauty, the mystique of her class, and flattery of his craft exposes both his juvenile view of romantic love and his reckless lack of awareness of life's fragility.
The vice of male ego resonates through all elements of the picture, supporting its central expression in Genjuro's romance with Wakasa and betrayal of Miyagi. Tobei's more obvious chase after stereotypes of masculine power might have been the central storyline had the picture been directed by a filmmaker of lesser talent than Mizoguchi. The samurai-wannabe's blatant knuckleheadedness stands in sharp contrast to Genjuro's more nuanced folly, just as Ohama's stereotypical henpecking is the opposite of Miyagi's gentility, patience, and devotion. But for all its reliance on cliché, the subplot proves incredibly effective at bolstering the main story. On top of that, Tobei's pain (well played by Sakae Okawa) upon discovering Ohama's fallen state is so palpable that both characters transcend type and become three-dimensional in the end.
The film's historical milieu also resonates in fascinating ways with Genjuro's mad grab for wealth, status, and the acceptance of Lady Wakasa, making it as much a political metaphor as it is a character study. Mizoguchi's politics were left-wing, as were those of Yoshikata Yoda, who wrote the screenplay. Though not as politically explicit, Ugetsu shares some ideas with Fighting Elegy, the Seijun Suzuki/Kaneto Shindo collaboration made 13 years later. It's not a stretch to read Ugetsu as locating the impetus for war in the aggression and egocentrism of the male psyche. If Miyagi is an innocent wounded by Genjuro's selfish assertion of ego, then aren't the civil wars that are the film's backdrop also the result of male grabs for power and status? Ugetsu's view of war and its impact on the lives of innocents couldn't be less romantic. Mizoguchi doesn't show us epic clashes between legions of samurai, as we would expect in any of the legion of jidai-geki programmers cranked out annually by the various Japanese studios at that time. Our perspective on the fighting is limited to that of the inhabitants of the tiny, poverty-ridden village. They have little stake in the conflict but are caught in the middle nonetheless. We see the war, then, through the eyes of the weak and exploited, and for Mizoguchi, that is a fundamentally female perspective.
The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Ugetsu is a two-disc Special Edition with each disc handsomely packed in its own slimline DigiPak, and collected in a slipcase whose graphics and artwork are simple and elegant.
Criterion's liner notes indicate the video transfer was mastered from the film's 35mm fine-grain master positive, and has gone through an extensive digital restoration. The movie looks considerably better than it ever has in a home video format (meaning VHS, in this case). As with Criterion's releases of Ugetsu's contemporaries, Ikiru and Tokyo Story, the source has its flaws. The opening credits and a couple of isolated master shots display a patina of fine vertical emulsion scratches that cover the entire frame. In addition, there are a few frames in the middle of the movie that exhibit sever emulsion damage. The image is otherwise spectacular, better overall than either Ikiru or Tokyo Story. Contrast is beautiful, and detail is sharp without appearing overly manipulated by digital restoration tools.
The original mono Japanese audio track has been similarly restored, and is offered in Dolby Digital 1.0, subtitled in English. The track is hardly dynamic, but it is free of major flaws.
In addition to the feature, the set contains a collection of supplements that is impressive in terms of both quality and quantity.
Disc One offers a commentary by critic and filmmaker Tony Rayns (director of The Jang Sun-Woo Variations and author of Branded to Thrill: The Delirious Cinema of Suzuki Seijun). Separately indexed into 20 chapters, the track offers a wealth of detail about Mizoguchi, his oeuvre, the production of Ugetsu, its themes and visual construction, and its place in Japanese cinema. Rayns's presentation is formal but not dry, and anyone interested in Japanese film will find it absolutely fascinating.
Two Worlds Intertwined is a 14-minute video interview with director Masahiro Shinoda (Samurai Spy), shot in 2005 for the Criterion Collection. He talks about Ugetsu's influence on his own filmmaking, and its style as a kind of Japanese neorealism. His knowledge of Mizoguchi appears to be encyclopedic. He relays an anecdote of a young Mizoguchi being sliced in the back with a razor by a prostitute with whom he was in love, and posits this event as perhaps the source of the sexual energy in the director's films. He also smartly frames Mizoguchi as the opposite of Ozu in terms of visual expression.
Process and Production is a video interview with Takuzo Tanaka, the first assistant director on Ugetsu. It runs 20 minutes and was shot in 2005 for Criterion. His discussion gives an overview of the making of the film from scripting to shooting, with loads of interesting anecdotes about Mizoguchi and his film. He talks about the director's style of working, and how actors were intimidated by him. He also talks a lot about Fumio Hayasaka's score, and how important it is to the film's tone.
Kazuo Miyagawa's interview is dated 1992, and was originally included in Criterion's laserdisc release of Ugetsu. It runs 10 minutes. He goes over Mizoguchi's scroll theory, and talks about the importance of visual storytelling and how visually illiterate filmmakers have become in the talking era.
The supplements on Disc One are rounded out by two Japanese trailers, and a fragment of a Spanish trailer.
Disc Two has only one extra, but it's a doozy. Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director is a 150-minute biographical documentary made in 1975 by Kaneto Shindo. It's presented in its original full screen aspect ratio, with a single-channel Japanese audio track, and English subtitles. Far more than a dry biographical study, the film unfurls as a kind of journey toward discovering Mizoguchi. Shindo travels to Kyoto where the director was born and died, and talks to the men and women who knew him and worked with him. Even 30 years ago, Mizoguchi's friends and colleagues were aged, so the piece offers an exceptionally warm and personal look at the director that couldn't possibly be achieved today. Shindo's most famous film, Children of Hiroshima, is characterized by its exquisite eye for detail, and has a power that comes from its documentary quality. Kenji Mizoguchi offers a similarly detailed, yet subjective construction. It's a beautiful piece of work worthy of a DVD release all its own. Its inclusion in this set means we get two great films for the price of one.
In addition to the plentiful onboard extras, the set comes with a fat 72-page insert booklet, loaded with great material. The booklet itself is elegantly designed and offers a smart essay on the film by critic and essayist Phillip Lopate (Totally, Tenderly, Tragically), as well as Criterion's usual detailed information about the video and audio restoration and transfer to DVD. The bulk of the book, though, is comprised of three short stories that inspired the film. Aspects of "The House in the Thicket" and "Lust of the Serpent" by Akinari Ueda, from his collection of short stories Ugetsu Monogatari, were used by Mizoguchi to construct the story of Genjuro. Tobei's story is very loosely adapted from "How He Got the Legion of Honor" by Guy de Maupassant—Mizoguchi borrowed the idea of the male longing for status and honor, and little else. The stories are not only enjoyable to read, but offer insight into Mizoguchi's adaptation process, demonstrating how he took ideas and scenarios from source materials and bent them to his own sensibilities and preoccupations, making them his own.
For fans of Kenji Mizoguchi, this DVD has been a long time coming. The good news is, it was worth the wait. The Criterion Collection has ensured that everything about this two-disc set is excellent. The video and audio restoration of Ugetsu are top-notch, the extras are as intelligent as they are exhaustive, and the inclusion of Kaneto Shindo's Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director means buyers get two excellent features for the price of one.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Filmmaker and Critic Tony Rayns
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