24 Jan 2017

Fifty greatest films: Ugetsu

From Widescreen, 2:03 pm on 24 January 2017

Feudal Japan is the setting for the second movie in Dan Slevin’s odyssey through the top 50 films of all time.

Kinuyo Tanaka as Miyagi, the farmer/potter’s wife – killed by soldiers with her son still on her back.

Kinuyo Tanaka as Miyagi, the farmer/potter’s wife – killed by soldiers with her son still on her back. Photo: Criterion

#50= Ugetsu (1953)

While the Sight & Sound version of the film canon (as voted by critics and filmmakers back in 2012) may not be terribly diverse in terms of gender, sexuality and ethnicity, at least only 15 of the top 52 in the list are from the USA. If you’re going to follow me on this project you will be forced to watch some films from other cultures (there’s one from India, one from Iran and one from Hungary as well 13 from France) and you’ll have to get used to reading subtitles.

(I was surprised when I had a closer look at how few British films there were in the list. In fact, if you choose not to be generous and treat Kubrick’s UK productions as semi-British then only two Powell/Pressburger WWII masterpieces A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp make it – just – into the top 100.)

At equal-50 on the list with La Jetée and Chaplin’s City Lights – which we’ll watch later this week – is Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (also known as Ugetsu monogatari or 雨月物語). It was released in 1953 and won the Silver Lion at Venice that year. Indeed, there’s a school of thought that the film – like some others by Mizoguchi – was more popular overseas than in Japan. What we now call ‘festival fodder’, I suppose.

Mizoguchi had been directing films since the early 1920s (many of which are now lost) but after World War II he changed his style and subject matter and turned to adapting ancient Japanese stories in the form of period dramatic morality tales. His later film Sansho the Bailiff, about two siblings in feudal Japan who are sold into slavery, seek revenge but eventually learn the power of mercy, is heart-breaking.

Mizoguchi was famous for his elegantly composed and contemplative long takes – “one scene one shot” was his motto – and the power of stories like Sansho and Ugetsu can creep up on you.

Genjurō the potter (Masayuki Mori) meets the mysterious Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō) and his life is about to take a supernatural turn.

Genjurō the potter (Masayuki Mori) meets the mysterious Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō) and his life is about to take a supernatural turn. Photo: Criterion

We are in late 16th century Japan. A farmer and part-time potter has just made his first significant sale and for the first time the family has money. Giddy at this success he rushes to start another batch despite a warning that the village is about to be attacked by a local Samurai and his army. His friend, Tobei dreams of becoming a samurai despite being clearly unsuited for the job and after their village is sacked they decide to try their luck at a different market across the lake – he to make a quick sale for he continues to dream of wealth and Tobei to find some armour so he can become a warrior.

Their ambition blinds them to their responsibilities. Because they both choose to leave their families behind they leave them exposed to terrible risk. Sure enough, the forces of history play their part and place the men on new paths, one of which turns into an unexpected ghost story.

Like Sansho the Bailiff, I hadn’t done my homework prior to viewing so the supernatural aspect came as a big surprise but not an unwelcome one. Also, like Sansho, Ugetsu doesn’t shy away from epic emotional torment – for the viewer as well as the characters. There’s no easy redemption on offer here.

Ugetsu is still in print on home video and you can buy it from good DVD retailers as well as rent from Fatso, Aro Street, Alice in Videoland and other fine video stores.

The Sight & Sound Top 50 project is intended to encourage more attention to the greatest films of the past – in the same way we still read old books and listen to old music we should be appreciating old movies.

Get the new RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes