June 19, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu

Ugetsu. 1953. Japan. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

These notes accompany the screenings of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsuon June 20, 21, and 22.

My uncle, Albert Green, was an internationally acclaimed ceramicist whose work is primarily in the collection of the Morris Museum in New Jersey. Although he never visited Japan, he was heavily influenced by Japanese potters. He was a genuine artist, obsessed with his kiln and with achieving the proper glaze for a particular piece. Genjuro, the potter who is the central character in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, is less concerned with artistic perfection than with the sale of his pots, extolling the virtues of financial success like some 16th-century Mitt Romney. I find it hard to accept the argument that Genjuro might be a stand-in, as some have suggested, for the obsessive Mizoguchi in commenting on the nature of artistry in clay—or in movies.

Ugetsu arrived in the West hard on the heels of Akira Kurosawa’s highly popular Rashomon. In addition to his usual muse, Kinuyo Tanaka (Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff), the film also stars two of the leads from Rashomon, Machiko Kyo and Masayuki Mori. (Kyo was to become, in the perception of the West, Japan’s leading actress, also starring in Teinosuke Kinugasa’s beautiful color import, Gate of Hell, and then going on to play opposite Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon.) Both Rashomon and Ugetsu were photographed by Kazuo Miyagawa, who went on to shoot several more Mizoguchi films and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Similarly, the music for both films was composed by Fumio Hayasaka. The contrast between Rashomon and Ugetsu was too much for some untutored Americans. New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther was befuddled. His review of Mizoguchi’s film (which had already won the top prize at Venice) warned that the movie might “vex” the audience with its “weird, exotic stew.” Crowther shortly followed up with a more sympathetic piece, attributing his befuddlement to “the comparative obscurity of Japanese films.” He is reassuring (if a tad racist) in telling his readers that they will never pose so great a threat to American films as mahjong.

Ugetsu. 1953. Japan. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

Donald Richie, to whom we all owe a great debt for persevering in the face of Crowtherian attitudes, considered Ugetsu “the most perfect” of Mizoguchi’s films. However, to be fair, the Times critic had a point. There was very little precedent in American or European cinema for the style of this film. Perhaps Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr comes closest, but one might also credit F. W. Murnau’s silent Nosferatu. (Silent films, being much less naturalistic, had a certain advantage over talkies.) Mizoguchi, given the otherworldly and supernatural nature of his subject matter, understandably seeks to mystify through misty traveling shots, obscure lighting, and eerie sounds and music. The film was based on several popular 18th-century stories by Akanari Ueda, whose book Ugetsu Monogatari can be translated variously as Tales of the Silvery Moonlight in the Rain or Tales of the Moon Obscured by Rainclouds. (Mizoguchi had already made silent films called Foggy Harbor, based on Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, and White Threads of the Waterfall). So, making things crystal clear or logical like some 20th-century ghost story with Whoopi Goldberg was not high on Mizoguchi’s agenda. There is still the usual dose of misanthropy one can detect in his films (which, indeed, also affects Kurosawa), and the male characters are typically responsible for the misery of the women. In this case, the masculine sin is ambition, something Mizoguchi would have seen clearly reflected in himself.

For myself, I find many of the virtues of Ugetsu in some of the director’s other films (Utamaro and His Five Women, The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff, The Crucified Lovers, etc.), and find it hard to digest the fantasy elements, since, as Scott Tobias has suggested, “no clear line of demarcation separates the realms of the real and the supernatural…and every time the director pulls out the rug, it seems freshly devastating.” Ugetsu is a beautiful object worthy of great respect, but I would demur from those who consider it the greatest film ever made.

Word came a few weeks ago of the death, at 100, of Kaneto Shindo. Shindo, the director of such international successes as Children of the A-Bomb, The Island, and Onibaba, had been a pupil of Mizoguchi’s and owed much to his mentor. In 1975, Shindo made the long documentary Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director, now available on DVD and one of the best films ever made about a director.