Criterion Review: UGETSU (1953) Haunts Your Dreams

Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ghostly Morality Fable UGETSU MONOGATARI is new on Blu-ray

Like fellow countryman Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi is a director of incredible and influential Japanese classic films who has been somewhat overshadowed in the west by the mighty Akira Kurosawa. The good news is that Criterion has inducted works from all three directors into the Collection, highlighting them for an audience eager to experience the best in world cinema. Happily, Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, or Ugetsu Monogatari, is newly available on Criterion Blu-ray.

In warring feudal Japan, two friends dream of achieving their own visions of personal success. Potters by trade, they obsess over their desires; Genjurō wishes for material wealth, and Tōbei of becoming a great samurai. Working harder than ever before, they create a collection of fine merchandise to sell in another town, hoping that a big sale will enable them to accomplish their dreams. Even as enemy soldiers patrol their village, they put their lives — and even their families — at risk to protect their wares.

The story is not unlike a Japanese version of the “Monkey’s Paw” fable. Upon finally making their business trip, each gets what they want, but with far-reaching and unexpected consequences. Genjurō is visited by a wealthy noblewoman who takes him as her lover, offering him both riches and carnal pleasure. Tōbei purchases armor and stumbles upon the body of an already-dead enemy general, taking his head as a “proof” of his valor to receive military commendation and rank.

It’s a strange balance to get right. Ambitiousness in and of itself is not a fault, but these men are slaves to their greed. In their selfish pursuits, each achieves his goal by taking immoral shortcuts, and in doing so forsakes his patriarchal responsibilities, leaving his family to suffer.

Even on this surface level, Ugetsu is a deeply meaningful and challenging morality fable, but it also incorporates a supernatural element that, once seeded, grows into a paradigm shift providing new insights and revelations.

This supernatural shift questions the fabric of the film’s reality, and is accompanied by haunting cinematographical techniques and composition choices that enhance the storytelling through subtle visual hints and suggestions. It’s a film that challenges the viewer and demands to be experienced again with attentive eye.

The Package

Ugetsu has arrived on Criterion Blu-ray, restored in 4K by The Film Foundation. The package is a handsome Digipak; its aesthetic matches that of Criterion’s prior Mizoguchi release Sansho The Bailiff, except that it’s slightly taller. It’s packed with notably thick booklet, 72 pages cover to cover, featuring the essay “From The Other Shore” by Phillip Lopate and three short stories.

Special Features and Extras

The interview features on the disc are presented in (or upscaled to) 1080i — some combing may be evident.

  • Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (149:54)
    This interview-based 1975 documentary by Kaneto Shindo clocks in at a whopping 2.5 hours, even longer than the feature film.
  • Two Worlds Intertwined, a 2005 appreciation of Ugetsu by filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda
  • Process and Production, a 2005 interview with Tokuzo Tanaka, first assistant director on Ugetsu
  • Interview from 1992 with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa
  • Trailers (3:36, 1:07)
  • Audio commentary by Tony Rayns

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
Ugetsu — [Blu-ray] | [DVD]

Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have slight compression inherent to file formats. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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