Published on December 16th, 2013 | by Noah Dimitrie0
The Criterion Cut – Ugetsu
The Criterion Cut: An Introduction
I love the Criterion Collection. I know you can’t see me right now, but I assure you that I’m on a rooftop and my throat is getting hoarse. These days, it seems very much in vogue to stereotype any fan of the collection as pretentious, pedantic, and, dare I say, phony. And trust me, those people exist. And they most definitely use the collection to boost themselves into otherwise undiscovered territory of douchbagery.
But alas, these people are few and most are eventually ostracized from the film community or just end up circle jerking each other off in a corner somewhere. Truth is, that group is relatively small compared to the giant collection of genuine film lovers whose lives are made easier and even a little bit magical, by the wonders of the Criterion Collection.
What the collection does for guys like me is open up a new world of brilliant, beautiful cinema from every decade and from around the world. Films that you wouldn’t have even heard of, let alone seen without a proper film class, are suddenly in the palm of your hand, and most importantly, spinning gloriously inside your Blu-ray player.
So I’ve decided to write about a different Criterion film every couple weeks in the hopes that you will discover something new, something interesting, something you wouldn’t have otherwise happened upon. Call them my love letters to the world of cinema. And what a wonderful world it is.
And now…The Criterion Cut: Ugetsu
Kenji Mizoguchi: Japanese cinema’s best kept secret. It seems crazy to think such a thought if you have studied the great director’s work or even seen a single of his films. His poise and instinct as a filmmaker can be seen in every frame. Unfortunately, those frames remain undiscovered for far too many film enthusiasts. Ugetsu, whose title is sometimes lengthened to Ugetsu Monogatari, arguably features the finest of these frames.
Coming off the heels of The Life of Oharu, Mizoguchi’s dream project, Ugetsu tells the story of two neighbouring households in 18th Century Japan — specifically, the men who command them, whose dreams and ambitions are just far-fetched enough for them to believe they could come true. Tobee, a fool played flawlessly by Eitaro Ozawa, dreams of becoming a great samurai, though his demeanour is pitiful and he reeks of desperation. Genjuro, a stubborn, yet mildly level-headed man, simply seeks pleasure, which to a poor farmer and potter, takes the form of silver and gold.
Then a civil war hits close to home — an army comes to round up the men and ravage the women’s honour. Mizoguchi is able to create a tale of such complex simplicity, managing to keep the characters more interesting than the malignant violence that surrounds them. And what greedy characters they are. As a fresh batch of pottery cooks in the shed, Genjuro risks his family’s safety to recover it. The camera seems to peer in at them as though it were spying. It sees them through the trees. It sits behind a rock, allowing the action to take place.
However, Mizoguchi doesn’t bother to judge these characters or force them to pander to a redemptive or inspirational story. Ugetsu remains as objective as possible, seeing what they see and feeling what they feel. That’s one thing Mizoguchi could do better than anybody.
The film then descends into a ghastly and haunting mood. The two families voyage through an almost impossibly foggy river, hell-bent on making it to the village where riches await them. The boat looks transparent. The air is as pale as a ghost, ominously hinting at the course of events that await them. The great cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon, Floating Weeds) conjures up a haunting, ethereal setting.
The families end up going their separate ways, either chasing their dreams or falling victim to another’s. Mizoguchi transitions between characters with grace and efficiency. The camera runs along a lush meadow, only to morph the landscape into unfarmed, peasant soil. A beautiful home on a mountain is shown to be nothing but a war-torn pile of bricks and lumber. He corroborates tales of joy with tales of despair, only to turn each on their heads and make them into something entirely different.
These are broken characters who bought into a dream, much like the American dream, in which any man, even the poorest of men, can find happiness, pleasure, and wealth. 18th Century Japan featured a significant gap between classes and these characters seem to be the result. They fall, but get back up again, only to fall harder.
However, this is not a film about disappointment. It’s about finding meaning in a bleak, ghastly world that some of us are faced with. In the end, however, they come across it too late and are forced to make the best of what they have. There’s a line in Paolo Sorrentino’s excellent film This Must Be the Place that sums this story up perfectly. “Without realizing it, we go from an age where we say: My life will be that to an age where we say: That’s life.
You can only sit back and revel in the beautiful mess of the life they inhabit. You can only hope they find what they’re looking for. More importantly, you can only hope that they actually know what they want. And who sold them these dead and decaying dreams? Perhaps it was the ghost of a similarly lost life, simply looking for company.