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: “Floating Weeds” (1959)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu and directed by Ozu, “Floating Weeds” is a remake of Ozu’s own black-and-white silent film “A Story of Floating Weeds” made in 1934. This film follows a traveling troupe of actors performing Kabuki theatre around the provinces (“floating weeds” is a Japanese term for itinerent actors). In the opening we’re introduced to the sleepy fishing village that will house the story to come as a few random dock workers muse about the heat of the day and the novelty of the incoming troupe. The troupe arrives by boat and parades into town handing out flyers and talking up the locals as they make their way towards their new temporary home while in town, the theatre. While there are some delightful and fun side stories with several members of the theatre crew, the plot’s main focus is on Komajuro Arashi (Ganjirô Nakamura) the leader of the operation, and lead actor. After settling in Komajuro heads off to a Saki bar run by Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura, his former mistress) to visit and go fishing with Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) their grown son who is unaware of his true father’s identity, knowing Komajuro only as “Uncle”.

As you might guess, it isn’t long until Sumiko learns of Komajuro’s ulterior motives in choosing this town for their next round of performances. Which doesn’t go well for Komajuro, as Sumiko’s the jealous type. After she discovers this affront and sees Oyoshi in attendance at one of their shows, she goes to Oyoshi’s Saki bar and aggressively confronts her when she catches Komajuro there playing Go with Kiyoshi one afternoon. Despite Komajuro’s shock and dismay at Sumiko’s transgression he bans her from the Saki bar and breaks it off with her in a powerful argument in the rain. Later on Sumiko offers one of the younger actresses some side money to go and seduce Kiyoshi at his job. While reluctant at first Kayo (Ayako Wakao) eventually accepts without knowing Sumiko’s reasoning for the request. Despite the origins of their relationship, Kiyoshi and Kayo end up falling in love. Shortly after this development Komajuro stumbles upon the two embracing in an alley and finds himself in a conundrum- how can he exercise his authority over Kiyoshi without revealing his true identity to him?

Komajuro had high hopes for his son, Kiyoshi had been saving for college and had plans to support his mother when he could. Before Komajuro can sort out the situation though, Kiyoshi and Kayo elope just as the theatre troupe had begun to fall apart. The financial manager absconded with their funds and several members considered leaving before they become too desperate. Dwindling crowds paired with mismanagement spelled the beginning of the end for the troupe. Eventually Kiyoshi and Kayo head back to town at Kayo’s pressuring- but Kiyoshi and Komajuro clash at the Saki bar when Oyoshi reveals Kiyoshi’s true parentage in an attempt to diffuse the scuffle. Kiyoshi discards Komajuro and leaves in a huff while Komajuro sits in amazement at the series of baffling failures set at his feet. He decides to move on after a cheerful long goodbye to the troupe, ironically riding out of town on a train with Sumiko tending to him- begrudgingly accepting his enemy’s re-established loyalty.

Ozu’s works, of the two I’ve seen so far, have this unique serenity to them. Maybe it’s the leisurely pace, the shots of gentle locations giving the world of his stories a sense of the oft quoted “lived-in” space, or simply that the content of his films are universal to the modern human experience. His films evoke a powerful catharsis felt just as strongly sixty years later. Obviously, not every film will work for every person, but I’m willing to bet that if you gave any of his films a chance you might find yourself quizzically enraptured not just by the drama of common themes across his filmography, but also by the meditative cinematography of his infamous “pillow shots” that melt in-between scenes asking you to pause and digest, relax and breathe. There is something powerful in his depiction of the joy, sadness, humor, and tragedy of everyday life that makes his characters seem familiar and his plots reminiscent of truth.

It wouldn’t be an Ozu film (as I’ve come to notice in my intense search for information on the filmmaker) without a particularly precise composition for every shot in his films. Ozu would typically put the composition of his frame above all else, ignoring the continuity of props and eye-lines for the purity of his images. Which is doubly true for his foray into color filmmaking near the end of his career. His warm pastel coloration for “Floating Weeds” adds another layer of texture to the small seaside village the story takes place in. Between the visible mugginess of the hot summer and the cleansing, humidifying, rain that comes at night and in-between heated arguments, there is a unifying sense of place not only with the “pillow shots” of nature and architecture but in all variables of the filmmaking process. Particularly pleasing was the soundtrack, evocative of popular video game scores (which were probably inspired by films such as this) like “The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker” and “Animal Crossing”, it was perfectly set for a small seaside village in the heat of summer. I doubt there could have been a more perfect fit than what we got. The recurring theme gave way to the notion of music belonging to a particular place in its essence, these melodies molded to fit this time and this place. All of these things combine to craft a beautiful and atmospheric stage for Ozu’s story to play out, and it does so with a grace and humility like no other.

While maybe not quite as emotionally impactful as “Tokyo Story”, Ozu’s remake here is a more diverse picture in terms of emotional balance. This is purely my commentary and I can only speak to my experience with the film, but this film held a greater variety of emotional resonance. I was legitimately shocked when Sumiko directly confronted Oyoshi in her Saki bar. The following heated debate in the rain between Sumiko and Komajuro was incendiary and raw. The anger, regret, shock, and disgust thrown at each other was palpable and moving. While earlier, in less fierce scenes, I was tickled by the three bachelors of the troupe and their antics in trying to pair up with the women of the town. This film is a rarity among cinema, as was Ozu himself, and it’s worth your while to experience something new in the pantheon of film, even though this film is sixty years old- it’s still a charming story with universal and relatable characters and themes. Give it a shot!

Final Score: 3 bachelors, 1 lead actor, and 2 mistresses

film

Old School Review: “Rashomon” (1950)

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Rashomon” is a film about the complexities of human nature surrounding a murder with four contradictory eye-witness accounts. In the film three men find solace from a torrent of rain under Kyoto’s Rashomon gate. In the opening a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) are discussing and processing the differing accounts of an event recently taken place nearby. A commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) comes in from the storm and joins the conversation. He’s brought up to date on the situation at hand; a samurai (Masayuki Mori) has been murdered, his wife (Machiko Kyo) raped, and a local bandit (Toshiro Mifune) is the suspect. The woodcutter happened upon the crime scene and was the first to report the incident.

What follows is a series of revolutionary flashbacks to describe the tale as each character remembers it. All retellings of the same event differ, while remaining both true and false. True in that it is how they remember the events, but false in objective truth. The only scenes that are objectively true in what they show us are the ones taking place at Rashomon. Every flashback is an amalgamation of fractured memories, every scene in the forest broke new ground by showing the audience unreliable retellings of the past. This wasn’t a new idea that “Rashomon” originated, but rather a storytelling device that the film popularized. In fact the film is so connected to the idea of contradictory interpretations of past events that they became entwined with each other until ‘The Rashomon Effect’ became part of the cultural zeitgeist.

Each suspect questioned by an unknown official, which leads into each one’s version of the truth. The bandit gives his testimonial first, then the wife, and then the dead samurai- who speaks through a spirit medium, with the woodcutter’s tale kept until the end. All claim to be guilty to varying degrees, and all describe the situation with varying representations of themselves and the others involved. The three men under the Rashomon gate have differing reactions to the events and various recollections of those involved. The commoner is the most cynical of the three, at one point he posits, “Is there anyone who is truly good? Maybe goodness is just make-believe.” The woodcutter is visually distraught by these stories as he tries to reassemble the truth of the matter, while the priest seems to be placing the weight of his faith in humanity upon the outcome of the tale.

The film ends on a high note when the fog of ambiguity is lifted by the sounds of an abandoned child crying out. The woodcutter lifts his spirits and takes on the responsibility of this orphan, proving to the priest that humanity still has hope left in its spirit. The simple act of selflessness gives the film’s end a beacon to strive towards, even if humanity is muddled, complex, and not always truthful- we still strive to be better than our worst habits.

Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.“- Akira Kurosawa

Final Score: 1 samurai ghost, 1 over the top bandit, and 1 woodcutter