50 years, 50 films Vol II: Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
Our travels through time unearth an unsettling, beautiful masterpiece of Japanese cinema
Well, this is tricky. We have reached 1953 in our journey back through time and are, thus, required to say something about Japanese cinema. The current consensus suggests that we will surely pick Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story. There is no question that Ozu’s quiet story of ageing and everyday sorrow is among the greatest films of all time. Look towards Sight and Sound’s poll of the world’s greatest films and you will see that, in 1992, 2002 and 2012, Tokyo Story hit the top 10. Someday, it might grab the top spot. Yet consider this. In 1962 and 1972, another Japanese film from 1953 occupied the place where Tokyo Story might have sat.
It would be wrong to suggest that the reputation of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugestu Monogatari has seriously slipped. It still figured highly in the 2012 poll and was listed in top 10s by such luminaries as David Thomson, Derek Malcolm and Martin Scorsese. But it doesn’t have quite the traction currently exhibited by the Ozu film.
By the time Ugetsu struck, Kenji Mizoguchi was already in his mid-fifties and had established a firm reputation in his own country. Indeed, some Japanese critics had decided that he was now old hat. When this extraordinary film won the Silver Bear at Venice the rest of the world shook itself from its slumbers and began paying overdue attention to Japanese cinema. Three directors went on establish firm international reputations: Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. Of those three, Mizoguchi — who sadly only lived until 1956 — is, perhaps, the most wilfully eccentric. One can see the influence of Tokyo Story in a hundred neo-realist films. Kurosawa, of course, learnt from the Western and gave back to it. Ugetsu Monagatari, with its casual melding of the supernatural and the realistic, could hardly have seemed more foreign when it hit the Lido in 1953. Even the camera angles are eccentric. Kenjo will take one of his characteristically long takes from an oblique angle in the ceiling then move to one of the waist-level shots that so often define Ozu’s work. The rules are all his own.
Based on stories by Akinari Ueda, the film concerns two couples getting by in the Ōmi Province during the late 16th century. Genjurō, husband to Miyagi, is a skilled potter. Tōbei, husband to Ohama, is the sort of deluded idiot who turns up in many period Japanese picture. Following a raid by enemy soldiers, Genjurō, who has lately been doing well for himself, takes the party towards a neighbouring city. The men make different sorts of bad decisions: Genjurō is lured away to a remote manor by a spooky noblewoman; Tōbei begins playing at being a Samurai. Later, the two chaps are forced to face up to their idiocy and recognise the greater wisdom of their tragically misused wives.
Ugetsu feels, on first viewing, like the sort of story you have, somehow or other, known all your life. The stink of myth comes from it. That other-wordly quality is accentuated by the conspicuous artificiality of the film-making. The sets look very much like sets and the acting has a theatrical physicality that occasionally touches on ballet. All this is underscored by some of the most impressively weird sound design you will hear in any film of the 1950s. Droning voices emerge from no very obvious source. Bells ring down the corridors of impossible houses. Fumio Hayasaka’s unspeakably eerie score — utilising geza music from Kabuki – might be the greatest he wrote in career that included work on some of Kurosawa’s very best films. You could even argue (you shouldn’t, but you could) that Ugetsu is one of the great overlooked musicals. Odd songs swill up and around the action.
For all the fantastic fug of the setting, the film is, at heart, every bit as much a work of tender humanism as was Tokyo Story. The last 10 minutes in particular impose a class of sadness on the story that you only get from Japanese cinema. Awful things have happened for no good reason, but basic decencies allow society to move forward. If you haven’t seen this wonder of world cinema, be aware that a complete version is available on YouTube above. There is nothing quite like it.
For 1953, we also considered Madame De…, Roman Holiday, Wages of Fear, Pickup on South Street, M Hulot’s Holiday, Journey to Italy and, of course, Tokyo Story.