Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Ugetsu

Year of Release  1953
Country  Japan
Length  97 min.
Director  Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenwriter  Yoshikata Yoda (adapted from short stories by Akinari Ueda)
Cinematographer  Kazuo Miyagawa
Editor  Mitsuzo Miyata
Art Direction  Kisaku Ito
Costume Designers  Tadaoto Kainosho, Shima Yoshimi
Cast  Masayuki Mori, Sakae Ozawa, Kinuyo Tanaka, Mitsuko Mito, Machiko Kyo

Beauty  Kenji Mizoguchi’s films are famous for their “flowing scroll” visual style, in which uninterrupted lateral tracking shots give the impression of a large image unfolding before the viewer’s eyes.  Ugetsu contains many striking and lovely examples of this distinctive visual language, most notably in a shot that begins with two lovers enjoying a nighttime bath and glides, with no discernable edit point, to show the same two having a picnic in the daytime.

Strangeness  Ugetsu’s camera movements resemble little else in cinema, aside from other films in Kenji Mizoguchi’s oeuvre (many of which were also shot by the great Kazuo Miyagawa).  Whether or not the actual storyline of the film, with its lack of distinction between the spirit world and the real world, will seem “exotic” to the viewer may depend on their geographic proximity to Japan.  In some respects, the environment of Ugetsu, with its ultra-pale ghosts, warring bands of samurai, and ornate brothels, almost seems like a summation of all of the stereotypes associated with “traditional” Japanese culture. 

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  The flowing scroll approach to cinematography adds an extra layer of meaning to Ugetsu’s simple, fable-like story.  While the plot follows two men (Masayuki Mori and Sakae Ozawa) who follow their respective dreams of wealth and stature while ignoring the families they’ve left behind, the camera follows their progress unblinkingly yet from a distance, suggesting the viewpoint of an indifferent spirit who realizes that humans are merely a small part of a large canvas.  Even as the characters get closer to realizing their dreams, the camera reinforces the ephemerality of their lives and makes their abandonment of their families all the more tragic.

Tradition  Because Mizoguchi was making films as early as the silent era, he was able to invent his own style rather than borrowing heavily from others.  In this respect, he is similar to such highly distinctive filmmakers as Fritz Lang and Carl Theodor Dreyer, yet a film like Ugetsu would never be mistaken for the work of those directors.  Later films as diverse as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) break many of their scenes up into single, poetic tracking shots, but perhaps the only films that precisely resemble Ugetsu’s aesthetic are Mizoguchi’s own.  The style arguably reached its apex in Sansho the Bailiff (1954).

Repeatability  Ugetsu still holds up as a lovely, immaculately crafted film.  Yet today it seems distinctly old-fashioned compared to other films of the golden era of Japanese cinema, including even period-based works such as Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).  There is a certain appeal to Ugetsu’s traditionalism, but, as mentioned above, it does seem at times to be almost the stereotypical Japanese film of its era, in terms of its setting and storyline if not of its style.

Viewer Engagement  Ugetsu has a nice, cleanly told narrative, with few tangential characters and no distracting diversions from the main characters’ quest for success.  The backdrop of war is vividly felt even though the battles occur almost entirely offscreen, the intrusion of battered, desperate soldiers suggesting the devastation that war can bring to civilian communities.  The camera follows practically every movement of the main characters, yet stays far enough away from the action for the viewer to maintain an observational distance.

Morality  The moral of Ugetsu – don’t let your ambitions distract you what’s really important in life – is as basic as that of any fairy tale.  It isn’t a particularly challenging, life-changing message, and because the wives of the main characters don’t make as big an impression as their spouses (or the ghost that one of the men briefly falls in lust with), the “appreciate what you’ve got” moral doesn’t resonate as much as it otherwise might.  Yet the message of the film is often elegantly expressed through its milky, luminous shot compositions.

Ugetsu fails the Masterpiece Test, but is unquestionably a must-see for aspiring cinematographers.

UP NEXT  A very different film dealing with the effect that war has on ambitious civilians, Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux.

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