This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Travis McClain’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I decided for this year's DVD Talk Criterion Challenge that I wanted to watch all of one of the celebrity Top 10 lists on their site. After careful consideration, I settled on Martin Scorsese's Top 10. Ugetsu is actually fourth on the list but after failing to fall asleep all night, apparently at 6:30 in the morning I had a hard time with numbers and skipped the third film and went onto this. (Hey, following lists is hard, alright?)
My grasp of Japanese culture and history is rudimentary at best, which is of course the whole reason that Phillip Lopate's essay for The Criterion Collection, Ugetsu: From the Other Shore is less film criticism and more a primer for ignorant rubes like me. I appreciate that Lopate kept whatever disdain he may have for readers like me out of his published essay. Too often, such pieces are defensive and can be antagonistic; all I detected here was enthusiasm for both the film and its director, Kenji Mizoguchi.
Just as I discovered that a state of medicated exhaustion in the middle of the night suited my first time viewing of The Red Shoes, I similarly found that Ugetsu played surprisingly strongly for me after having failed to fall and stay asleep all night. Generally, I shun watching movies in the daylight hours but the morning was quiet and accommodating. By the time we got to the boat-on-the-lake scene, I found myself having flashbacks to when I worked third shift in my late teens. There was nothing else to do in those days except come home and watch Scooby-Doo reruns. (I found that I could time my channel surfing just right and catch three consecutive hours of Scooby, but maddeningly, I could never actually remember who the villain was no matter how obvious or how many times I'd seen the episode over the years.)
That lake scene gave me the heebie jeebies. I absentmindedly found myself making such remarks as "Nope!" and "Oh, hell no!" (The cats just glared at me for my bad manners.) Try as I might, I honestly could not ascertain whether that was shot on a sound stage or on location somewhere. I attribute that confusion at least in part to how meticulously designed the rest of the film is, but unquestionably that scene even removed from the rest of the picture is so deftly crafted that it's just that convincing. It wasn't until I watched the accompanying interview featurette, Process and Production, with the film's first assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka, that I learned of how painstakingly that scene had been produced.
[Incidentally, that interview with Tanaka discussing Mizoguchi is insightful but also hilarious and easily one of the most enjoyable interview featurettes I've seen yet in The Criterion Collection.]
As for the film itself (and yes, I realize that was quite a rambling preface!), I was captivated from start to finish. I'm still so new to Japanese cinema that I fear going into each film that I just won't get enough of what I'm seeing to appreciate it, but I feel I "got" Ugetsu. No doubt, there are cultural and historical nuances that went over my head and I'm sure I could pore over each scene frame-by-frame for decades and find new things to appreciate and admire about it, as its most ardent champions have done for 61 years, so I suppose what I really mean is that I found it instantly accessible.
I quickly connected with all four of the primary characters. Though I hadn't expected to care most about Ohama by the film's end, Mitsuko Mito's performance - unapologetic and defiant, yet also fragile and tender - won me over. I was startled by the sexual violence that befell her, even though it was all but foretold by the dying peddler in the aforementioned lake scene, just as I was heartbroken to see the connection made between being a victim of rape and becoming a "defiled" woman condemned to prostitution. And yet, I know that such horrific things have happened - and are still happening - to women around the world.
Appalling and heartbreaking as Ohama's arc is, Lopate succinctly explains why it engages as it does: "The complex camera movement... demonstrate[s] the way that this director’s compassionate, if bitter, moral vision and his choice of camera angle reinforce each other." I was conscious while watching the film how kinetic it felt because of the camera movement, but then I've become attuned to such things. I would be keen to hear reactions from viewers accustomed to thinking of old black and white films as being static and lifeless.
In any event, what stands out most to me about Ugetsu isn't the lake scene or its camera work, but rather the overarching/underlying theme that both service: Kenji Mizoguchi's keen sensibilities about exploring the turmoil of war to find, without flinching, the humanity that endures it. It isn't a film that romanticizes suffering as nihilistic provocateurs have tried to do, but rather one that distills - without being reductive - those experiences to the personal level. It's precisely because the film is so focused on these few characters that it can speak to all of us.
Ugetsu Trailer (3:34) ***
Much as we decry the rise of the spoiler-heavy trailer, the truth is that it's been with us all along. In this case, though, I can understand how the intent was to tap into audience identification with its inspirational material, to reassure that the film did hit the highlights. I'm glad I watched this after the film, though.
Process and Production (20:14) *****
As mentioned above, this was terrific from start to finish, swiftly covering everything from thematic commentary to production secrets and some entertaining biographical notes about Kenji Mizoguchi himself. I would read an entire book by Tokuzo Tanaka just reminiscing about such things, though obviously what I really mean is that I would read a translation of that book because I don't read Japanese.
Two Worlds Intertwined (14:09) ****
It's not your fault, Masahiro Shinoda. I'm sure if I'd watched your video featurette first, I'd have thought more of it. But Tanaka is a tough act to follow. Still, I did appreciate the perspective that Shinoda offered on Mizoguchi as storyteller.
How Ugetsu Entered My Flickchart
Ugetsu > The 'Burbs --> #826
Ugetsu > Electric Earthquake --> #413
Ugetsu > Bridesmaids --> #207
Ugetsu > Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace --> #103
Ugetsu > Paisa' [Paisan] --> #52
Ugetsu < 8½ --> #52
Ugetsu < Star Trek V: The Final Frontier --> #52
Ugetsu < Dogtooth --> #52
Ugetsu < Casino Royale (2006) --> #52
Ugetsu < Moulin Rouge! --> #52
Ugetsu < O Brother, Where Art Thou? --> #52
Ugetsu entered my Flickchart at #52/1651