Ugetsu (1953) by Kenji Mizoguchi

December 10, 2010 § 2 Comments

Overview

Just when I thought In the Mood for Love (2000) had beautiful camerawork, came Flowers of Shanghai (1998). And when I thought it couldn’t quite get any better than Flowers of Shanghai, Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu flashed before my eyes, came and went. It really blew me away. To me, Mizoguchi is the best fit between Ozu’s sentimentality, and Kurosawa’s visceral treatments of his films. Because this is such a visually arresting film, I dedicate this review to some of my favourite scenes of the film, as well as to Kazuo Miyagawa, one of the finest directors of photography I’ve had the good fortunate of discovering.

Key Scenes

In this scene, Genjuro walks past a textile shop and his mental projections of Miyagi. The surrealistic and mysterious way in which Miyagi appears remains very elegant even though the speed at which it happens might across as slightly abrupt. However, the scene retains its elegance largely because of its simple treatment – the surrealistic projection is suggested by a single pan of the camera coupled with the use of the particular non-diegetic music that we will come to constantly associate with the nostalgia of Miyagi later.

If Ozu has his trains, Kurosawa his rain, then certainly Mizoguchi would have his fog. This scene captures the trademark motif in many of Mizoguchi’s films. I think this scene is not only beautiful cinematographically, but also strangely mysterious and foreboding. In retrospect, I think this was the scene where Genjuro faced ahead of him, the crossroads of whether he should ahead to the city to sell his pottery. When he impulsively, and eventually does make the trip to the city, the act is symbolic. The descend into fog bound darkness is to usher more impulsive decisions stemming from his weaknesses of greed and lust.

This particular shot is the result of a spectacular transition from the scene where Genjuro has his rendezvous with Lady Wasaka by the hot springs. Like the previous scene mentioned, the speed at which Mizoguchi switches from one space-time continuum to another is astonishingly fast. Together with the recurring fog motif in Ugetsu, I think Mizoguchi was trying to suggest how man can easily be tempted into the vortex of his own weaknesses. In this case, it is amazing how Genjuro can simply forget his family and wife when he is tempted into the offers of the beautiful Lady Wasaka. The speed at which all these events coincide with each other, might appear too fast but strangely, I think that Mizoguchi is right in saying that people can actually let go of everything at a moment of impulse.

This is the famous Miyagi ghost scene, and holds very poignant memories for me. The interplay of light and shadows using a single long take was not only a display of technical mastery, but also a summation of a man’s mental projections at his most desperate state. I think that as Japanese and Asian director, Mizoguchi has moved beyond portrayals of human relationships, and moved towards a cinematic expression of their inner psychological states. The scene also features the same music score as the one mentioned in the first scene of this review, and hearing it again really reverberates deeply in me, a heartwarming feel. The scene gains tragic proportions however, when we eventually realize that Miyagi had earlier died in the absence of Genjuro. The projection is false, and Genjuro’s dreams are dashed.

Experience

“It is not your the kimono, but your kindness that makes me happy.” How can anyone ever forget Miyagi?

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§ 2 Responses to Ugetsu (1953) by Kenji Mizoguchi

  • Eric Lorge says:

    Nice reading of Mizoguchi in general and Ugetsu specifically. Another great Mizoguchi film that had haunting rivers and boats and fog was Sansho the Baliff.

    Also, thanks for the tip on the DP, Kazuo Miyagawa… I never bothered to find out his name, but the photography of both of those films is as good as it gets.

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