Most Japanese social critics agree Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film, Street of Shame played a crucial role bringing about the legal criminalization of prostitution. It was an issue that held personal significance for the auteur, due to the fate of Suzuko, an older sister sold into a geisha house when their father’s business plan to capitalize on the shorter-than-expected Russo-Japanese War collapsed. Echoes of his family experience can also be heard throughout Mizoguchi’s 4K restored masterpiece, Ugetsu (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum.
Ugetsu is based on two stories drawn from Akinari Ueda’s Ugetsu Monogatari, a collection of traditional Ming-era Chinese supernatural tales adapted to pre-Edo era Japan, but you would hardly know it from first thirty minutes or so. Instead of rushing into the ghostly encounters, Mizoguchi takes his time introducing his primary characters. Genjūro is a provincial potter, who recognizes the impending war brings an opportunity to sell all his stock at premium prices. Much to the chagrin of his faithful wife Miyagi, Genjūro’s success encourages him to press his luck. While most of the village is primed to evacuate, Genjūro maintains his kiln fires, hoping to finish enough stock for an even more profitable trading excursion.
He enlists the assistance of his neighbor, Tōbei, who has developed an almost Quixotic ambition to become a samurai. To do so, he will need to purchase armor and a spear, which he hopes to cover with his share of the pottery profits. His wife Ohama considers his plan tantamount to madness. Even when the soldiers overrun their village, the two neighbors cling to their vain obsessions. As a result, they will tragically leave their wives in precariously vulnerable positions. However, Genjūro will also jeopardize his very soul when he falls under the spell of a temptress ghost during his second attempt to sell his wares in the provincial capital at inflated wartime prices.
One look at the ethereal Machiko Kyō is enough for us to tell she is a ghost, but Genjūro is bewitched. In fact, Kyō’s eerie look, including long flowing garments and tresses, would influence nearly every Japanese ghost film that followed Ugetsu. Yet, Mizoguchi’s film is just as much a work of socially conscious cinema as it is a Kwaidan-esque yarn. The peasantry suffers terribly at the hands of warring samurai in Ugetsu, especially the women, but as is always the case in grand tragedy, their downfall is precipitated by the men’s overreaching ambitions.
Mizoguchi regular Kinuyo Tanaka is utterly heartbreaking as Miyagi. Her haunting performance (so to speak) will literally have you doubting things you have previously seen with your own eyes in a pivotal third act scene. Yet, Mitsuko Mito arguably offers an even more forceful indictment of men’s follies, as the wronged Ohama. Despite the power of their work, it is Kyō who became the iconic face of the film. Masayuki Mori makes Genjūro a figure of acute pathos, but as was often the case with Mizoguchi films, it is the women who define Ugetsu.
Ugetsu is one of a handful of Japanese films, along with Kobayashi’s Kwaidan and Shindō’s Onibaba and Kuroneko that prove supernatural “horror” films can indeed reach the level of high art. It is one of the films everyone ought to catch up with, especially now that it has been so carefully restored. Very highly recommended for anyone who takes cinema seriously, Ugetsu opens this Friday (3/3) in New York, at Film Forum.