#90 (tie): ‘Ugetsu’: The Reveal discusses all 100 of Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time
Kenji Mizoguchi's 1953 masterpiece is a devastating and timeless ghost story about the cost of war.
Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
Ranking: #90 (tie)
Previous rankings: #57 (2012), #34 (2002), #26 (1992), #33 (1982), #10 (1972), #5 (1962).
Premise: In early 16th century Japan, a civil war threatens the residents of a small farming village in the Ōmi Province. Needing money to take care of his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their young son Genichi, the gifted potter Genjūrō (Masayuki Mori) takes his wares to a nearby city and returns with an enormous profit. Despite warnings not to leave his family with danger lurking, Genjūrō fires up the kiln with the intention of going to another city with his brother-in-law Tobei (Sakae Ozawa), who carries delusional ambitions of becoming a samurai warrior. When marauders finally invade the village, Genjūrō’s family, along with Tobei and his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), make it across the foggy Lake Biwa alive, but the close call doesn’t curb the men’s ambition. As they leave their wives behind, they find an eager, wealthy buyer in Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō), an elegant noblewoman of mysterious provenance.
Scott: I often like to open these conversations by speculating over the journey certain films have taken on the Sight & Sound list. Why have they gotten greater or lesser appreciation over the years? Does the composition of voters in a certain era make a difference? The availability of certain titles? The critical consensus (or lack thereof) over the director’s full body of work, which could either divide voters between multiple titles or bring attention to an obvious standout in the filmography? But I’ll confess to feeling a bit flummoxed about the downward trajectory of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, which has the rare distinction of debuting at its highest point (#5 in 1962) and more or less slowly tumbling down the charts in the decades since. Maybe Mizoguchi simply doesn’t have the rep of other Japanese masters like Yasojiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, despite a formidable oeuvre that deserves just as much consideration. Perhaps voters were divided over Ugetsu and the masterpiece Mizoguchi made one year later, Sansho the Bailiff, which was for a time on the shortest of short lists for my favorite film. Or, to float the most obvious theory, Ugetsu debuted exactly 70 years ago and a whole bunch of good movies have come out in the interim.
Nevertheless, that debut at #5 stands out to me, because Ugetsu had the advantage of timeliness that it couldn’t have now, no matter how strongly it resonates as a tragic story of greed, ambition, regret, and the cruel forces of history. Japan’s involvement in World War II gave it a contemporary power that perhaps faded over time, as that regret-filled nightmare inched further away in the rearview mirror. But still, I’m a little flummoxed: Ugetsu is a masterpiece that deserves a firmer place on the Sight & Sound list than its trajectory currently indicates, because of course it’s as timeless as war itself and forward-thinking, as many Mizoguchi films were, about how women in an unequal society are forced to suffer for the mistakes of vain, foolish men. You don’t see that changing any time soon.
The Reveal is a reader-supported newsletter dedicated to bringing you great essays, reviews and conversation about movies. While both free and paid subscriptions are available, please consider a paid subscription to support our long-term sustainability.
Ugetsu was drawn from two supernatural tales in Ugetsu Monogatari, a collection of nine stories by Ueda Akinari that were published in 1776. It also plucks Tobei’s subplot from an 1883 Guy de Maupassant short story called “How He Got the Legion of Honor,” which creates a strong rhyme between the two marriages in the film and how each is undone by the husband’s hubris. The nature of that hubris is not precisely equal: Genjūrō is more than just a skilled laborer. He’s an artist whose pottery is not only valuable to sell as street wares, but an aesthetic wonder that attracts interest from more sophisticated buyers. (Though the fact that the main sophisticated buyer turns out to be a ghost may say more about Genjūrō’s fantasized estimation of himself than others’.) Tobei is simply a fool whose samurai dreams are in no way matched by the reality of his abilities. His success is loaded with happenstance and irony. The one common theme is that their ambitions lay a heavy price on the women they love.
None of this is straightforward, however. Ugetsu is a moral tale that interlaces the harshness of war with the supernatural, without always drawing a heavy border between the two. Keith, was there a point for you when Ugetsu started to exit a recognizable reality and into a different realm? For me, the famous sequence of the crossing of foggy Lake Biwa is our first hint, even though the action itself seems true. The four pass a boat where the sole passenger talks about being attacked by pirates and warns them of the path ahead, and then once they reach the shore, Genjūrō and Tobei strike out to fulfill their mission to sell more pottery. I think we can accept everything that happens on its face, but the sense of the uncanny lingers, does it not?
Keith: It definitely does. That Mizoguchi isn’t schematic about it is to the film’s strength, but there’s definitely a sense of the uncanny being turned up and down depending on what the scene requires. It also tends to be higher in scenes shot in the studio and lower in scenes shot on location. That may just be a side effect of Mizoguichi’s production restrictions, but it serves the film. The further we travel from what we recognize as the real world, the less beholden the film becomes to real world restrictions.
I don’t think Mizoguchi was the first to do this and the Akinari stories he’s adapting in turn draw on Japanese and Chinese folk tales. The tradition of spirits slipping into our realm is long and rich in just about every culture. But I think it’s fair to say that Mizoguchi was among the most influential in finding ways to bring that tradition to film and you can see traces of the way Ugetsu creates porous borders between the supernatural world and our own in everything from Kwaidan a few years later to Miyazaki films like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away to (and I don’t think I’m stretching here) J-horror like The Ring.
As for Mizoguchi’s rep, I think it’s fundamentally safe but it is odd to see his films slip further down the ranking every decade, as Sansho, the other Mizoguichi film on the list, has also done. I think you’re onto something about timing. Mizoguchi died just six years before the 1962 poll. He made over 100 films, many of them lost, and Ugetsu was part of a rush of revered films he directed before dying of leukemia at the age of 58. The sheer number of Mizoguchi films make his filmography a bit harder to sum up than the other two Japanese giants he’s usually mentioned alongside, as does the variety of films he made. Take away Ugetsu and Sansho and most of his best-known films are dramas focused on self-sacrificing women with an emphasis on the many ways patriarchal tradition can make life miserable for women.
But the same can be said for Ugetsu, can’t it? Genjūrō and Tobei serve as the central characters, but it’s the women in their lives who suffer from their quests for, respectively, fortune and glory. Ugetsu has other victims in mind, too. The scenes of an entire village being forced to evacuate for fear of what an invading band of soldiers, who are really little more than outlaws, will do to them are harrowing, depicting how wars driven by the whims of the rich can wipe away everything in their path. The film opens with a title revealing the story is set in early spring some time in the 16th century, “a period of civil war,” but its depiction of a country torn apart by strife and the ambitions of foolish men seems both timeless and a coded way of reflecting on the end of Japan’s imperial ambitions and the cost they had exacted.
In a 2014 essay provocatively titled “Better Than Ozu and Kurosawa: Mizoguchi,” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody shares some of your concern about Mizoguchi’s critical fade while calling him “one of the most furious and fiercely critical political filmmakers of all time, in any country.” I think there’s something to that. There’s anger and sadness in Ugetsu to match that of contemporary dramas like Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy, though I tend to think of Mizoguchi as a director of working toward statements through the dramas of carefully drawn characters rather than making films designed primarily to make a statement. Is that your experience with Ugetsu? And we haven’t even talked about Mizoguchi’s striking style at all. If you like long takes in which every element and lingering moment is invested with meaning he’s your guy, isn’t he?
Scott: I appreciate Brody going to bat for Mizoguchi, though the phrase “furious and fiercely political” strikes me as a little too muscular, given the tone of a film like Ugetsu, which doesn’t feel like the shot to the bow you might expect based on that language. Ugetsu, like Sansho the Bailiff a year later, is a humanist work that displays a special sympathy towards those who suffer tyrannies beyond their control. Here we’re sensitive to the vain, foolish decisions Genjūrō and Tobei make at great cost to their family, but we cannot forget the context of their poverty and the uncontrollable menace of war. You describe it well as “wars driven by the whims of the rich,” who are not the types of people who pay the terrible cost for them. Just because Genjūrō and Tobei leave their wives to pursue their ambitions doesn’t make them wholly responsible for, respectively, one wife getting stabbed by a marauder and the other turning to prostitution. (The latter is a component of Sansho as well, though Mizoguchi treats the oldest profession with dignity in his great and final film, 1956’s Street of Shame.)
One key element to Ugetsu relates to Mizoguchi’s own sense of moral and political responsibility. When the noblewoman Lady Wakasa takes a special interest in him and his beautiful work, it’s the sort of flattery that an artist like Genjūrō can let get to his head. “I feel for my creations as if they were my own children,” he tells her, adding that it’s a dream come true to see them appreciated by a wealthy, pretty woman such as herself. One of the bewitching aspects of Ugetsu as a ghost story is that Genjūrō seems to lose all sense of himself when he’s in Wakasa’s presence—he forgets the wife and child he’s left in peril, and he isn’t attuned to the pronounced unreality of the situation. It does not come as a surprise to us, as viewers, when a priest informs Genjūrō that Wakasa is actually dead, but he has to be shaken from a powerful trance. His brilliance as an artist, Mizoguchi implies, does not liberate him from his responsibilities as a human being. Mizoguchi clearly feels an obligation to comment on the world around him, rather than settle on beauty for its own sake.
But gosh, there’s plenty of that here, too, isn’t there? The long takes and active camera are Mizoguchi trademarks, and the legendary cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon, Yojimbo, Floating Weeds) achieves the supernatural effect of Ugetsu mostly through tricks of lighting. There’s one shot here where Mizoguchi amplifies the eroticism of Genjūrō’s time with Wakasa by showing her getting into the hot springs with him and then having the camera pan away to an idyllic scene of the two having a picnic, as if it was all one shot. “I never imagined such pleasures existed,” Genjūrō tells Wakasa. Me neither, buddy.
The other important thing about Mizoguchi movies to me is they’re emotional experiences, dramas of self-sacrifice and loss and hard-won redemption. Sansho the Bailiff is a favorite of mine not because it completely wrecked me at multiple points, especially an ending that’s unbearably tragic and life-affirming at the same time. We get so much of that emotion in Ugetsu, too, like when Tobei stumbles across his wife in her new profession and is so guilt-stricken and contrite that he tosses his samurai gear into the water. Or when little Genichi, reunited with his father, carries his plate of food over to his mother’s grave in the film’s final moments. Mizoguchi’s films are often full of despairing turns, but he believes in the essential decency of his characters and allows it to shine through, even when they can only partially redeem themselves.
Anything choke you up here, Keith? What are the standout movie moments of Ugetsu for you?
Keith: Nothing gets me quite like Genjūrō’s return, where he’s able to live in the dream of what he imagined his homecoming would be just long enough to let the bitterness of its disappearance sting even harder. It’s not so much that Genjūrō is getting his just desserts. As you suggest, the degree to which he’s even responsible for his actions in Wakasa’s presence remains unclear. Genjūrō’s been swept up in forces beyond his control and as weird as his particular story is, his fate is a familiar one. You leave home for war and the home you return to is never the same one you left. (It’s part of why I never got Peter Jackson opting not to film the “Scouring of the Shire” portion of Lord of the Rings, but that’s a whole other topic.)
The way Mizoguchi shoots that scene is breathtaking, too. One pan of the camera and his life has been restored to him. The next moment, it’s gone. It’s another example of how the film creates a sense of supernatural instability with relatively simple effects. Makasa’s another one. On the Criterion commentary track, Tony Rayns notes that Ugetsu is the first film to use Noh-inspired images to suggest the otherworldly. That, in turn, inspired Kurosawa to do the same with Throne of Blood. The effect of an actor playing a character as out-of-sync with reality with some simple visual touches to emphasize the point is extremely powerful.
We’ve talked a lot about Genjūrō but what about Tobei? He gets what would be the B-plot if Ugetsu were a sitcom, but it’s essential to the film, depicting another way war can distort the lives of ordinary people. You dismiss him as a fool and, in many ways, you’re right to. If Genjūrō is drawn into Makasa’s world against his will — and that’s an “if” the film doesn’t answer — Tobei has only himself to blame for his fate. He wants to be a samurai and he accomplishes this first through deceit then through money. But when we see him in full samurai dress later in the film he does seem to have memorized a bunch of tactics. The commentary here isn’t subtle but it is cutting. Being a leader requires only the ability to look and play the part.
We’re not done with Mizoguchi thanks to Sansho, which we’ll get to later. But we should probably offer some last thoughts on this film. What do you think of the mood of the ending? You brought in the word “humanism” earlier and while it’s impossible to call Ugetsu’s ending happy there is a sense of the need to carry on and maybe work toward a better tomorrow. It’s the same mood that defines the ending of another favorite Japanese film from that era, Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp. That film’s explicitly about World War II, but is it fair to say that Ugetsu is similarly tapped into the cautious, regretful hopefulness of the post-War years? And do you have any other final thoughts before we move on?
Scott: The ending is lovely. Sad, bittersweet, hopeful. This family has reconstituted itself and settled back down together, down one person who is powerfully acknowledged in the final shot. It’s a similar but less crushing ending than Sansho, which features a reunion that’s full of love and regret and forgiveness, but also immense tragedy. The men in Ugetsu have made mistakes and paid for them, but they’ve also committed themselves to the hard work required for redemption, even if all the characters can never get back everything they’ve lost. I lack the historical expertise to describe the national mood in Japan after World War II, but I strongly suspect the ending of the film, with these surviving characters emerging from the fog of war, must have been quite resonant.
I’m glad you bring up the scene where Genjūrō returns home and reunites with his wife and son, only to wake up to discover it was all an illusion. His wife is gone, his home is destroyed, and the village chief is taking care of his kid. I love this approach to fantasy, which Martin Scorsese deployed to great effect in The King of Comedy and The Age of Innocence. Mizoguchi does not emphasize the unrealness of the fantasy until he cuts to the truth, pulling out the rug on us. The full weight of what Genjūrō has lost collapses on him (and us) in a split second. There are times when Ugetsu is more suggestive stylistically that what we’re seeing is likely not real, as in any of the scenes with Lady Wakasa, but here Genjūrō’s delusions are totally disguised.
Perhaps it’s an artistic statement of purpose, too, as Mizoguchi himself shifts from the aesthetic beauty of the Wakasa scenes, with their stylized ghostliness, to the more grounded feel of the coda. Genjūrō is greedy for wanting to make more profit, but his heightened awareness of himself as an artist leads to a tragic vanity that falls over him like a spell. Mizoguchi seems to have crafted the film around Genjūrō’s journey like a glove, to where the look of Ugetsu changes right along with the character. It’s his way of reminding the audience– and perhaps reminding himself–that artists have responsibilities beyond empty self-expression.
I cannot wait for Sansho the Bailiff to crush us both into tiny cubes, but that’s all the way up at #75. First, we’ll keep working out way through the logjam at #90 with an even more stylized classic from 1953…
Next: The Earrings of Madame de… (1953)