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The Criterion Collection presents
Ugetsu (1953)

"Success always comes with a price in suffering."
- Ohama (Mitsuko Mito)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: November 13, 2005

Stars: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyo, Kinuyo Tanaka, Sakae Ozawa, Mitsuko Mito
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:36m:51s
Release Date: November 08, 2005
UPC: 037429209325
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Great films come in many flavors, and they need not trumpet themselves as epic for them to be worthy—Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, for instance, is a seemingly simple story, but if it's not necessarily the greatest film ever made, it's certainly in the team picture. Ugetsu doesn't have the trappings of an epic, and it's not self-consciously arty—director Kenji Mizoguchi doesn't lard up his film with technical effects that call attention to themselves, in an effort to make a grab at the brass ring. But this insinuating, haunting tale is an extraordinarily worthy cinematic achievement, and its release on DVD, making it the first Mizoguchi title in the Criterion Collection, is landmark, and a delight. (Pedants take note: I'm referring only to DVDs here, and am well aware that Criterion released some Mizoguchi on laserdisc.)

Much of the recent English-language literature on Mizoguchi has put him in the blocks for some insipid Japanese cinematic footrace, but I'll leave that to others—one need not run down the achievements of such fine filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu to laud Mizoguchi and his achievements. Ugetsu is set in sixteenth-century Japan, and its setup is pretty straightforward, focusing on two potters and their wives. One of the men, Genjuro, wants only to make his fortune, even if it means taking advantage of the misfortunes of others; he's prodded along by his wife, Miyagi, more content with the small pleasures and quiet life of their peasant village. Genjuro is assisted by Tobei, who dreams even bigger, with Don Quixote-like fantasies of being a great samurai—his wife, Ohama, thinks him a fool, and with good reason. War comes to their part of the country, and they are forced to evacuate—the adventures of the two men out in the world, and the impact of their choices on their families, makes up the bulk of Mizoguchi's story.

Preposterously enough, circumstances conspire to allow Tobei to don samurai garb, and even, for a brief time, to be taken for a great man—he cannot believe his good fortune, and is willfully ignorant to the occasional derisive laughter. The impact on his wife is brutal, though—without his income or protection, and in a time of war and chaos, prostitution is the only viable economic choice she can make. Genjuro gets waylaid as well—on his way to market, he's seduced by the eerie Lady Wakusa, whose house on the edge of town and lunatic demands for eternal fidelity give this plot strand the form of a classically told ghost story. (All the actors in the film are very good, but the most memorable among them may be Machiko Kyo as Lady Wakusa—Kurosawa fans will know her as well as the woman at the center of the story in Rashomon.)

There's much that's brutal in Ugetsu, and Mizoguchi seems to be encouraging his audience to draw parallels between the predicaments of his characters and those of his fellow citizens in postwar Japan—the selfish pursuit of glory and the failure to attend to the consequences of one's actions on others is at the heart of the matter, though there are eternal truths in this look at one aspect of the human condition, and the film works perfectly well on its own terms, and not just as a political allegory. And one of the reasons it does is Mizoguchi's technical mastery. His camera is remarkably fluid, and compositionally, it's one of the most striking movies ever made—unlike Kurosawa, who flattened filmic space nearly into two dimensions, Mizoguchi is keenly attentive to and interested in depth of field, with movement on all axes, choreographed as well as any musical sequence ever shot. Ugetsu is, among other things, a horror movie, and the sense of pandemonium and lawlessness is palpable, informing the frequently poor choices of the characters, illuminating aspects of human behavior that we'd frequently rather keep in the dark. It's a haunting movie, beautifully made, and worth watching and re-watching.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Scratches and discolorations are frequently evident, alas, but they seem like the scars of neglect through the decades, not the fault of Criterion's strong transfer. Kazuo Miyagawa's cinematography retains much of its starkness and power.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Occasional hiss interferes, but, as with the picture quality, this seems like the ravages of time, not the fault of the transfer.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 19 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
2 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Tony Rayns
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
  2. color bars
Extras Review: Criterion has given us, more or less, a Mizoguchi seminar in a box. Tony Rayns provides a thoughtful, informative commentary track, strong on the historical context of the film, both for postwar Japan and in Mizoguchi's career; he's also especially strong on Mizoguchi's style, providing many technical insights. It's a very well done effort. The first disc also includes interviews with three admirers of the director. The first (14m:08s) is with film director Masahiro Shinoda, who focuses on the fantastical elements of the movie, and on its influence. The next (20m:12s) is with Tokuzo Tanaka, the first assistant director, who is very good on situating the movie in Japanese history, and who fondly recalls his time working with Mizoguchi. The last (10m:31s) is with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa—this was shot in 1992, and accompanied Criterion's laserdisc release of the title. (Miyagawa died in 1999.) He was the D.P. of choice in Japan in those years, having worked frequently with Ozu and Kurosawa as well as Mizoguchi.

The second disc in the set is devoted to a feature-length documentary—Kenzi Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (02h:29m:44s) provides a useful career overview, back to Mizoguchi's days working in silent pictures, and up through his death, three years after the completion of Ugetsu. It's jammed with clips, and with conversations with colleagues, collaborators and scholars, and is a fine starting place for those who may not be familiar with the man or his work. An accompanying booklet features an essay by Philip Lopate, making the persuasive case that Mizoguchi belongs in the first level of the pantheon; the booklet also includes the source material for the screenplay, from both East—two short stories by Akinari Ueda, from the late eighteenth century—and West—How He Got the Legion of Honor, by Guy de Maupassant.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

A great film, with luminous images sure to haunt you, and a beautifully despairing look at the nature of human folly. The film looks magnificent on this majestic set, which comes with an array of extras that are sure to please even the most devoted Mizoguchi fan.


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