Combustible Celluloid
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With: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyo, Kinuyo Tanaka, Eitaro Ozawa, Ikio Sawamura
Written by: Yoshikata Yoda, Matsutar� Kawaguchi, based on stories by Akinari Ueda, Guy de Maupassant
Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 97
Date: 03/26/1953

Ugetsu (1953)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Gushing over Mizoguchi

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

American audiences had little use for Japanese cinema during the 1940s, and that's understandable, given the circumstances. But in 1951, everything changed when a little film called Rashomon rolled into American theaters. It was so beautiful and so startling in so many ways that it ushered in a brief "Japanese New Wave."

Akira Kurosawa, who directed Rashomon, was just beginning his career and had many masterworks ahead of him that Americans would line up to see. But other masters who appeared during this time were just at the tail ends of their careers. Kenji Mizoguchi, whose Ugetsu was released in 1954, only lived another two years. He died at the age of 58, still at the height of his power.

World War II also helped shape Mizoguchi's career previous to his United States debut. Assigned to make "women's films," he found he had a knack for them, and created his first masterpiece, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum in 1939. The war brought in strict censorship, and Mizoguchi struggled against it, though he did make a version of The Loyal 47 Ronin that has been released on DVD.

Ugetsu came in the middle of a turning point. He feverishly cranked out nine films in the last four years of his life, and three of them, The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu, and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) and won the top prize at the Venice film festival, three years in a row. To date, he has earned a kind of legendary status among film critics and filmmakers who regard his work among the greatest ever made.

Only the second Mizoguchi film to be released on American DVD, Ugetsu (The Criterion Collection, $39.95) offers viewers a good start.

Based on short stories by Akinari Ueda and Guy de Maupassant Ugetsu tells the tale of two poor farmers who, as a side gig, make pottery and sell it at the marketplace. One, Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), wishes to be a samurai and the other, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), falls for a mysterious noblewoman (Machiko Kyo) who admires his craftsmanship.

Tobei winds up following a samurai and pulling a trick to nab the fame and recognition he craves, while Genjuro goes off with the woman and ends up staying with her as if under a spell. Both men's wives suffer greatly in their absence, and -- without giving any more away -- the ending slaps both men with its bitter irony.

Shot in beautiful black-and-white, Mizoguchi employs his trademark fluidity to brilliant effect. He insisted that movies actually move, and he photographed almost every shot in long, traveling takes, using foreground and background for poetic effect. In one scene, he dissolves from a hot spring to a lakeside in one smooth moving shot. And the final scene, in which Genjuro returns home, involves a stunning 360-degree take that still has film nuts buzzing.

DVD Details: The Criterion Collection presents Ugetsu in a lovely two-disc set. The first disc includes interviews with many Mizoguchi collaborators, and Tony Ryans provides a commentary track. The second disc includes a feature length documentary, Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (1975), and a handsome 72-page booklet includes all three short stories and an essay by Philip Lopate.

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