film

Old School Review: “Ugetsu” (1953)

Written by Matsutarô Kawaguchi, Akinari Ueda, and Yoshikata Yoda, and directed by Kenji Mizoguchi “Ugetsu” is a film that hides its true intentions behind the veil of a ghost story. The supernatural aspects of the film cleverly disguise the introspective look at the different sexes and how war frenetically warps both. Frankly, the idea of ghosts here aren’t what modern audiences may expect, it is an older representation of the dead that take issue with moving on from this world. There are no jumpscares here, but there is a moral tale that should cause concern and, dare I say it, a deeper level of fright than your typical horror show. We are set in sixteenth century Japan during a civil war in which two lower class families are torn apart just as much by the greed and avarice that foments during wartime, as their own miscommunications.

Mizoguchi’s camera is almost always flowing in poetic fashion, mastering the long take and transitions that emit an ethereal tone.

Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) and Tôbei (Eitarô Ozawa) are the men of two small households in a rural village near the shores of Lake Biwa in Ōmi Province. Genjurô, a potter, and Tôbei, an ambitious fool with dreams of becoming a Samurai, head to a larger village nearby that’s heard to be having a small economic boom due to the encroaching war. Despite the concerns of their wives, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) Genjuro’s wife, and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) Tobei’s wife, the two men hurry off to earn money, material value, and in their eyes; the satisfaction of their wives despite their own fears of inferiority. Which is nonsense to begin with as both of their wives tell them that they are enough for them as they are. Despite the worries of their wives and the village elder, the two men come back successful with a small batch of earned income, which only bolsters their egos to earn more silver and gold the next time they embark.

This scene was excellently shot and eerily immersive.

As Genjurô and Tôbei rush to prepare their next batch of pottery in their kiln, the approaching war marches upon their doorstep before they can properly assess their work and are forced to leave while it burns, unattended. The two men begrudgingly trot off with their families as soldiers arrive in their village, but it isn’t long before they are so consumed by the idea that they might lose all of their effort that they run off to check the kiln. To their surprise, the pottery was completed without harm and they quickly gathered their product and convinced their wives to travel with them to the city to sell their goods once more. They choose to take a boat across the lake, avoiding the foot-soldiers of war. However once on the water, and the fog rolls in, we are at once transported from a wartime historical drama to one of supernatural happenings. An unspoken sense of dread spreads as another boat emerges from the mist with a dying man to warn them of pirates out among the waves. After which they decide that sneaking about the edge of the water might be safer. Genjurô’s wife and boy head back towards safety, but Ohama fears that Tôbei’s dreams of becoming a Samurai could overtake him, so she departs with them to hurry along the selling process.

A newly decorated Tôbei discovers Ohama working as a prostitute.

As expected, Tôbei runs off after spotting a decorated warrior in the crowd. Ohama chases after him to no avail while Genjurô remains to sell their wares. Not long after Ohama’s rush to find Tôbei, Genjurô is approached by Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô) and her aide. They point out a few dishes and a sake set and tell him to bring them to the Kutsuki mansion just outside of town. Now, here’s where each of the four major characters have major scenes surrounding their decisions and failures. Tôbei eventually finds a suit of armor and sneaks about to the battlefield where he stumbles upon a dying general of the opposing faction who asks his accompanying lieutenant to execute him by decapitation. The loyal underling abides, wipes tears from his face, and takes the head of his fallen master right as Tôbei attacks from behind, killing the lieutenant and hurrying away with the stolen head as his prize. He finds the nearest barracks, presents the head of an enemy general and is rewarded fondly with a fitting rank, horse, and a small regimen of soldiers to command. Ohama’s luck is not so kind, as she’s captured by random footsoldiers, raped, and thrown to the street. She eventually finds work as a prostitute and runs into Tôbei with his men at an inn. They argue at length in a scene where I personally thought Ohama might actually kill Tôbei, but eventually they abate and both discard their new personas and return to the village having learned that unchecked ambitions can have great costs.

Lady Wakasa’s seductive illusions further illustrate how war inflicts suffering on men and women alike- even carrying some trauma to the afterlife.

Genjurô and Miyagi, however, fare worse fates than that of their neighbors. Given that Mizoguchi’s main narrative focus is the suffering of women due to the ambitions of the men in their lives during times of heightened conflict, the overarching narrative between Miyagi and Genjurô is particularly grim. While Genjurô heads to the Kutsuki manor with Lady Wakasa’s order, Miyagi and their son Genichi are attacked on the road home by rootless foot soldiers. In a moving sequence Miyagi is hassled for the food she’s carrying, Genichi strapped to her back, but the men quickly overcome her and stab her to death with their spears and trot off with their spoils to devour them in the background- all while Genichi wails in the foreground clasped to his dead mother’s back. This macabre scene paired with the dream-like pleasures Lady Wakasa offers to Genjurô may cause a battle of emotional turmoil in the gut- and as this film’s historical setting is used as a reflective mirror to Japan’s postwar sensibilities, it’s introspective look at Japan’s wartime morality is powerful and poignant. Eventually Genjurô is confronted by the reality that his new illustrious lover may not be all that she seems, a local shopkeeper turns pale at the mention of Kutsuki Manor and a wandering priest notices that Genjurô has been in contact with supernatural forces and applies exorcistic tattoos all over his body. When he wakes from his illusory nightmare and sees that the Kutsuki manor has been in ruins for years, Genjurô returns home sober and in need of his family. Waiting for him there are Genichi and Miyagi, with food and a bed roll waiting. It isn’t until the morning after that Genjurô realizes that his wife’s ghost was watching over their son, and he goes back to solemnly fire up his kiln, and help Tôbei tend his fields.

Miyagi’s final moments…

In retrospect, I did enjoy this film. Mizoguchi has a unique direction, and his narrative focus is one that is often underrepresented- especially in his own time. While this film did not capture me or necessarily take my breath away, it was a good film that I respected. This was the first film of Mizoguchi’s that I have seen, and I’ll definitely be returning to his library of films in the future. I recommend this one to anyone interested in the film’s sociopolitical message or simply to see another Japanese master of cinema. I recommend giving the links listed below a look if you want to know more about the film and the creators involved with it.

Final Score: One Potter, One Samurai, and One Ghost

The article below is what drew me to check out Mizoguchi in the first place. Having recently seen a lot of Kurosawa and Ozu films- I found this article’s title to be both provocative and mystifying. Thus credit, where credit is due:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/better-than-ozu-and-kurosawa-mizoguchi

*Here’s another focused review that provided a lot of good context for the film and Mizoguchi as a creator:

https://deepfocusreview.com/definitives/ugetsu/

*Lastly, here’s another in-depth analysis of “Ugetsu” that I found fascinating:

https://www.slantmagazine.com/dvd/ugetsu-bd/

film

Old School Review: “Tokyo Story” (1953)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu, and directed by Ozu, “Tokyo Story” is seemingly a simple family drama about an older couple traveling to visit their children and grandchildren in Tokyo. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking such of an arthouse film, but you’d be wrong in this case. In essence that is the skeleton of the film, yes, but beneath the initial layer lies a story about family and how time can erode once strong connections. It is about how parents can lose their place in their family’s hierarchy. How work and modernization can manipulate and destroy family in subtle ways. Mostly though, it is about the bittersweet heartbreak of growing old and losing touch with those closest to you.

When Shukichi (Chishu Ryu), the grandfather, and Tomi (Chiyeko Higashiyama) the grandmother, arrive in Tokyo they’re welcomed by a busy family. They spend the first few days with their oldest son Koichi (So Yamamura) a doctor in a small local clinic. He is married to Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake), and they have two sons. After meeting their grandchildren and hanging out about the house (Not many adults have the time away from work to take them sightseeing) they head to Koichi’s sister, Shige’s (Haruko Sugimura) home. Shige is also married and runs a beauty salon in the first floor of their abode. The family members mean well, and make several attempts to entertain their elders, sightseeing some and buying them treats (though Shige protests at her husband for buying such expensive cakes- they eat most of them before presenting the gift). At a lack of finding things for Shukichi and Tomi to do the married couples recruit Noriko (Setsuko Hara) their widowed daughter-in-law who hasn’t yet remarried since the war. Noriko is more than happy to help, even though she isn’t a blood relative and has the least stature among the adult children of Shukichi and Tomi.

They try not to burden any of the family while they are in Tokyo, but it becomes clear after some time that they are simply too busy to accommodate them. After a failed trip to a resort spa outside of Tokyo, paid for by Shige’s family, Shukichi and Tomi decide to head home. They linger about for a bit, trying not to offend anyone for having left the spa early, which isn’t why they came to Tokyo in the first place. After a night out with Shkichi’s old village friends now residing in Tokyo, and Tomi having a profound evening with Noriko- they depart for home. Shortly after having returned home, Tomi falls gravely ill and the children begin to make the journey home for their dying mother. It is a beautiful and tragic sequence of scenes for the last half hour of the film, Shukichi veiling his grief with blank expressions and the children all commingling their grief and true feelings about their parents- it’s a lot, and if you can make it through the end with dry eyes, I honestly don’t know what would move you to tears in cinema.

The story, however, is only one slice of what makes this film so memorable and potent. Yasujiro Ozu’s technique behind the camera accounts for much of the dreamlike quality of the film. His cinematography and framing choices seem unique in how he utilizes them. He doesn’t always adhere to the eyeline rule, characters can seem as if they aren’t looking at each other as they speak, but he cares not. His style doesn’t sacrifice spacial or auditory understanding in the least, it enhances it. Ozu often frames two people sitting side by side, facing away from the camera, which gives the audience an almost ghostly viewpoint of the dialogue. It’s in this pairing of those faraway, unconcerned, shots of conversation with his low angle mid-shots of the actors directly facing the camera that Ozu’s style emerges as one both heavily invested in what his characters have to say, but also of the world they inhabit. Many scenes are bookended with “pillow shots” (relating to a similar technique in Japanese poetry); beautiful compositions of elaborate cityscapes, simple architecture, trains chugging along, or boats cruising along the coast in the background that bind the characters to their place and time so beautifully.

Inherently relatable and elegantly true to life, “Tokyo Story” was a joy to discover. I cannot recommend it enough, I found it (as with most older films lately) on the Criterion Channel, and with it a new filmography to plumb. Test new waters, take a chance and maybe you’ll find a new favorite film or filmmaker, I know I have.

Final Score: 4 adult children, 2 grandchildren, and 1 heartbroken old man..

*To further inform you on the humble perfection of this film, I’ve linked Roger Ebert’s review of the film below:

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-tokyo-story-1953