Deemed “one of the greatest of all films” by Roger Ebert, director Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 signature film (made only three years before his untimely passing) is the story of two couples whose lives will be forever changed by the coming Japanese Civil Wars of the 16th century. After pottery maker Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) makes a tidy sum selling his goods in the big city market, he sets out to make even more pottery before the extremely violent army makes its way to his village. With the help of his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), best friend Tôbei (Sakae Ozawa) and his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), they narrowly escape the invaders with their goods undamaged, and make their way out on the eerily foggy Lake Biwa to the city. But when the become sidelined and separated, each of their fates seems tied to their weakness or the weakness of their spouse.
Ugetsu (presented in a truly stunning 4K digital restoration) is drawn from two different, age-old ghost stories and brought together to tell the tales of two men’s self corruption. Genjurô is ruined by money and lust after the elegant and mysterious Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô) buys many of his goods and tempts him by asking him deliver them to her opulent castle. While Tôbei is given the chance to finally become what he has always dreamed: a samurai for a powerful lord, and he soon goes from a laughing stock to a much lauded hero of the war. And while each of the men at least get to live out some part of a fantasy life before reality and spirits move in, the wives are mistreated terribly almost from the minute they are separated from their husbands.
While Mizoguchi (Sansho the Bailiff, The Life of Oharu, Miss Oyu) roots these stories in a kind of reality, he also soaks them in the world of the supernatural. Japanese ghost stories have been a part of that country’s cinema for as long as they’ve been making films, but Mizoguchi’s treatment of the format is sublime, eerie, and quite disturbing in terms of the lessons learned. The bottom line is, you have a unique chance to see a restored print of one of the finest works ever committed to film on the big screen. If I have to convince you to make the trip to see that, I don’t think I can help you.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.