the sight & sound top 50 challenge: ugetsu monogatari (1953)

This year I am attempting to see more films that I ever have in a year, and whilst I can easily increase the number of new releases I see by attending the cinema on a more regular basis I also want to expand upon the number of classics in my repertoire. These ‘great’ films are the ones that many would claim are essential to expanding my cinematic vocabulary and are pieces of cinema history that have greatly impacted the discourses that come about in my classes and in my everyday film-related conversations.

With this goal in mind I am embarking on what I call ‘The Sight & Sound Top 50 Challenge’. This entails watching one film each week from the most recent Sight & Sound Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time poll, beginning with number 50 and working all the way to number 1. Each week I will publish a brief response to the film where I document my reaction, reading and understanding of the film, particularly as a piece of work holding a “greatest film of all time” title.

This week's film Ugetsu Monogatari is tied at #50 with last week's screening La Jetée and next week's City Lights.

#50 Ugetsu Monogataru (1953) dir. Kenji Mizoguchi

Described as a supernatural horror story, what is most haunting about Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is not the appearance of ghosts, but its confronting exploration of happiness and its correlation to greed. So simple in its message, and much of its plot, Ugetsu uses a film language that reflects the mood it explores; a feeling of meditative contemplation. Analysed in the context of its time, the film is a work of cinematic brilliance; in the context of the last 60 years of cinema however, I question whether it deserves it's place amongst the "Greatest Films of All Time."

Set in 16th century Japan, Ugetsu tells the story of two brothers in a time of civil unrest. When their village is ransacked by marauding soldiers, Genjiro (Masayuki Mori) and Tobei (Sakae Ozawa), along with their wives Myagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), flee into the nearby jungle fearing for their lives but leaving behind their prized pottery business. Discovering their wares have survived the ransacking, Genjiro, Tobei and Ohama take them by boat to the city of Nagaham to sell. After successfully selling their wares the three are separated and Genjiro is accosted by the phantom Lady Wakasa who has created a romantic paradise for him. Lady Wakasa’s grasp on Genjiro is mystical, supernatural even, and their time together ends with tragic consequences.  

Ugetsu carries a moralistic message, and its plot is rich in layers, which is also incredibly confusing at times. Not so much in what happens, but in why certain events take place. Although often described as a film about two men consumed by greed, Genjiro’s motives don’t seem selfish. Yes, he is working harder than ever before to increase his profits, and this does seem inspired by one fortuitous week of earnings, but his efforts appear motivated by the desire to be prosperous for his wife and child. This is why it becomes so confusing when he is so suddenly enchanted by the bewitching ghost of Lady Wakasa. Confusions extend to the ghost of Lady Wakasa, who repeatedly contradicts herself. At one moment she claims: “You think I’m some kind of enchantress, don’t you?” as if to say she is not, but then continues with lines such as “You belong to me now. From now on you must devote your entire life to me.” These moments encapsulate my own perplexity at the film’s direction and many plot points.

The film’s strengths lie in its visuals. The film is dreamlike, almost spectral, and its ability to fuse together the real and supernatural worlds appears effortless. Its visual beauty is vast and the unobtrusive camera adds to the ethereal settings that Mizoguchi constructs in moments of serenity. Frame by frame, shot by shot, audiences are entranced in a way few other films can muster. To describe the film’s atmosphere as haunting is where it can be argued the film succeeds in producing a ghost story. The two scenes pictured below are perhaps the best examples at this. The first, set on the lake, is composed of everything that alludes to ghost stories: fog filling a large portion of the frame as our protagonists enter into the unknown, unaware of the terror that lay ahead. The latter scene is unique for it’s ability to bare an entirely different reading upon the conclusion of the film. Devoid of dialogue, the scene is beautifully eerie and resonates in the mind of the viewer as the film reaches its supernatural climax, hinting at its association to supernatural themes. Despite these strong elements, to me, Ugetsu is not one of the greatest films of all time. From its breath-taking long shots whose grace complements the films meditative tone, to the surprising ending in which audiences learn of a second ghost in Genjiro’s life, the film was breakthrough for its time. I am still unsure however, of what makes Ugetsu the great classic it has so frequently been labelled.

Nick proposed that perhaps films such as Ugetsu don’t produce as strong a reaction from me the way many recent films do as a consequence of the way more contemporary pictures have “spoiled me” with an overabundance of rich storytelling, and filmmaking and special effects advances. This idea touches on some of the themes of my earlier Generational Ignorance piece. Ugetsu didn’t dazzle me the way that so many modern films, even the ones I don’t particularly love, manage to. In comparison to last week’s viewing, La Jetée, Ugetsu didn’t leave me inspired by the storytelling capacity of cinema, or moved by its message. A ghost story; a story of folklore; an old wives’ tale taught as a lesson; there is much to dissect in Ugetsu but the full potential of the powerful story, which possesses an aura of a time past, is lost within the over-packed plot and unjustified decision making of its heroes.