Edgar Cochran’s review published on Letterboxd:
Kenji Mizoguchi's quiet, yet hauntingly inspiring introduction to his epic tales of gigantically epic proportions set in ancient times begins with Ugetsu Monogatari, a film unanimously hailed as one of the greatest cinematic masterworks in the history of the motion picture and a landmark in Japanese cinema, becoming Mizoguchi's most extraordinary achievement. Resorting to a high dose of humanism, euphoric nostalgia, imaged illusions and blind ambitions, Ugetsu Monogatari is the classic cinematic ghost tale of Japan, a story of unparalleled power and underlying shocking messages aimed towards worldwide masses. Introducing a filmmaking style that would just happen to be completely perfected in a future cinematic project called Sanshô Dayû (1954), which is his most powerful and redeeming odyssey of unequaled existentialist and dramatic proportions, Ugetsu Monogatari, a film which title was widely popularized as "Tales of a Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain" with the possible purpose of enhancing the natural and implied mysticism of this prime opera, constitutes a true homage and a poetic reminder of the ancient Japanese society and the most human factors that weaken our condition and increase our tendency to perdition, confusion, non-prioritized personal wishes and to walk through the paths of inevitable consequences. Beauty, once again, falls in love with a predominant hell.
Opening in a small village set in times of the civil wars of 16th-century Japan, two peasants, Genjuro and his brother-in-law Tobei, ambition to build their own fortunes despite the constant warnings of their respective wives. Whereas Genjuro dedicates his life to the business of pottery, Tobei wants to become a world class samurai. After their village is attacked by plundering armies and the kiln of Genjuro is unbelievably left undestroyed, they decide to escape from their home and try to make fortunes in the big city, which is already a risky decision. While Tobei decides to accompany Genjuro so he can buy a spear and a samurai suit for himself, Genjuro leaves Miyagi and his son in the middle of their journey, sending then home and promising to come back. Later on, Tobei abandons his wife, splitting the family business plan and starting to slowly unfold catastrophic consequences. It is here when Lady Kasaka, a wealthy and certainly creepy noblewoman, becomes interested in Genjuro's pottery and asks him to visit the Katsuki mansion. The movie received an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design, Black-and-White in 1956 and Kenji Mizoguchi won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1953.
Perhaps this film being the 78th piece of filmmaking by Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi implies experience. It certainly is a towering achievement, which ultimately would be surpassed the next year. The direction, as simple as it may seem, starts to evolve through quietness and hypnotic visual cinematography with prolonged sequences of silence, songs, dancing, nature, drama and water, thanks to its classic and haunting plot. Kazuo Miyagawa, talented cinematographer of films by Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu such as Rashômon (1950), Ukigusa (1959) and Yojimbo (1961), shows the first sign of poetic brilliance through the construction of beautifully captured frames and wide shots, providing an aesthetically balanced feeling of tranquility and increasing tension, culminating in nostalgia. Mizoguchi seemingly felt necessary to portray a very Japanese atmosphere adapting, with the screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda, two ghost stories from the eighteenth century by Akinari Ueda called "Tales of Moonlight" and "Rain", adding personal elements of his own. This is the point where the screenplay becomes an inspirational piece of writing which perfectly fitted into the film and where the direction of Mizoguchi is split into two visionary styles. On one hand, we can fully appreciate the classic Japanese society at its fullest expression with a predominant feeling of homage towards the beauty of ancient times, thus exalting the sympathy towards the characters. On the other hand, we have various camera angles depicting the otherworldly, the supernatural concept applied by Eastern culture to the term and definition of ghost, relating it to an evil and malicious entity since it does not belong to earthly life anymore, as well as the consequences of submitting our conscience to false illusions.
This is where the haunting introductory soundtrack, which is used in ghastly sequences throughout the film later on, prepares the viewer for a supernatural experience dominated by beauty. It is true that Ugetsu Monogatari depicts characters whose false decisions become the very foundations of their respective epiphanies and culminating personal dooms, not to mention the ignorance towards the truth and the rejection of past errors. However, the story and main purpose of the film ends up focusing on Genjuro, the man who witnesses a supernatural event. Illusions, being these material or imaginary, are the ones that tend to blind and seduce our own consciousness, separating the soul and the mind from what should be important and prioritized, from a pottery business to the unconditional love of a good wife.
Irony is present all the way through, especially at the end. The typical ambition that complicates the successful and honorable achievement of personal goals was a vital aspect for the plot's development, particularly for enlightening the precarious decisions made from beginning to end that would result in tragedy. Even if we put an imaginary shield in front of us in order to avoid being attacked by strong and unbearable consequences, the effects of our actions will never go away if we are not willing to reject evil once and for all. Although unfaithfulness pushed the limits of Genjuro so he could fall in love with a gorgeous and seductive ghost, he decided to write a sacred text tattoo all over his body so he could push the whost away despite being warned about his situation and him having a wife. This decision does not make any sense at all, and it is not far away from believability since we consider that the ambition for richness was a principal motor that moved the wheels of the vehicle of destruction.
The movie itself is timeless and uses fantasy as a false image of the mind, a reality of a society set in any time in history. Mizoguchi understands this concept and applies it to cinema in a feast for the senses, relying on the beauty of every frame the film contains instead on a dose of terror. Family bonds and the supposed relevance of family union aren't excluded as key elements of the plot, but Ugetsu Monogatari, deservingly referred to as one of the best films ever made, is cinematic brilliance turned into gold for the soul, a cathartic experience of powerful influence.