I was about twelve years old when I first became interested in film, and as goofy as it sounds Star Wars (1977, dir. George Lucas) was the movie that got me started. I devoured those movies and began devouring every movie that I could get my hands on. Anyway, when I was in the height of my obsession with all things Star Wars, I watched a documentary called The Making of an Empire which follows the behind the scenes of Lucas and Co. making the famed trilogy. It was during this documentary that I heard a name that would end up being very important in my love of all things cinema: Akira Kurosawa.
In my obsession with Star Wars I wanted to watch the films that had inspired Lucas, and because Kurosawa had been an influence on Lucas I wanted to see some of his movies. So I sat down and tried to watch Seven Samurai. I’m not sure that I even made it to the intermission. It was longer and slower than any movie I had ever seen before, and it was in a language which I did not speak (reading was not something that I enjoyed). At that moment I essentially wrote off all things foreign and vowed to never watch another subtitled film again.
Then a few years later, and I’m not exactly sure how it happened, I stumbled across a strangely titled movie playing on TCM: Ugetsu Monogatari. The title caught my eye because of how odd it was, but upon reading the summary I knew that I had to see the film. I don’t remember the exact wording, but essentially I knew the film was a ghost story, and I knew it had something to do with Samurai. It sounded awesome and I wanted to see it.
Was it the film that I expected? Probably not.
Did I enjoy the heck out of it? Yes.
Ugetsu Monogatari was the first foreign film which I watched all the way through. The pacing is brisk, the story is captivating, and the characters are fully drawn individuals with hopes and faults. This film began my love of not only foreign films, but of Japanese film.
The story is concerned with two farmers: Genjuro, who is married, has a young son, and dreams of becoming rich; and Tobei, who is married but dreams of moving away from the little village to become a Samurai.
After the village is attacked by bandits, Genjuro goes into the city to sell the pottery he makes to supplement his family’s income. He makes a surprising amount of money and buys his wife a kimono, something he says he has wanted to do for a very long time. On a return visit to the city, Tobei and his wife go with Genjuro to help him sell pottery.
Tobei steals some of the money to run off and buy armor in hopes of becoming a Samurai, Genjuro meets a strange woman and marries her, Tobei’s wife, Ohama, is attacked by soldiers. Meanwhile, Genjuro’s wife, Miyagi (“wax-on, wax-off”…sorry wrong movie), deals with issues of her own when she is attacked by soldiers looking for food.
Now we begin to see how the fantasies Genjuro and Tobei had for their lives are negatively affecting not only their families, but themselves. Tobei gains fame during a battle, yes, but he loses his wife’s respect and eventually reveals his true colors to those around him. Genjuro makes it big with lots of money, a beautiful wife, and a large castle to live in, but realizes that it is all an illusion. And Ohama lives in a brothel and sells herself to earn money and food.
The narrative is fascinating and progresses quickly. But the film is only 96 minutes long, after all, so it should progress quickly.
Otherwise there is the stunning photography. There is one scene when the four main characters are traveling across a lake shrouded in fog. One shot shows us water and fog drifting over it, in the distance we hear a voice singing, and then like a ghost emerging from the fog we see a boat approaching the camera.
Mizoguchi’s balance of light and dark elements in his compositions are breathtaking throughout the film. Ugetsu Monogatari has some of the best low-key lighting in any movie I’ve seen that isn’t a film-noir.
I’ve seen the film twice now. The first time many years ago, and now again this week. Do not hesitate to see this film. If you’re in the US check out the (awesome) DVD set The Criterion Collection has out. If you’re in the UK (or are region free), then check out the AMAZING blu-ray released by Eureka Entertainment through their Masters of Cinema collection. It is worth the price of importing.
If you like Japanese films, ghost stories, or just interesting character studies then check this one out ASAP. I give Ugetsu Monogatari the highest recommendation possible.
Here is the trailer on YouTube from Eureka Entertainment.
Up next I should be reviewing the first half of Fritz Lang’s 1924 Two Part epic “Die Nibelungen”, with a write-up on the second half shortly thereafter. So keep an eye out!