A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, April 14, 2017

Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

When does beauty become a flaw? To put it another way, if beauty is only skin deep, how does an artist present it so that we don't linger on the surface of a work and fail to comprehend its depths? I raise this in connection with a viewing of Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, a film universally praised for its beauty. It's easy to be mesmerized by Mizoguchi's visual compositions and by the sinuous fluidity of Kazuo Miyagawa's cinematography, as well as the poetry of Yoshikata Yoda's screenplay, all at the expense of feeling the coherence of the film's story and characters and ideas with our own lives. I find myself preferring Mizoguchi's less exquisite films to Ugetsu: Sansho the Bailiff (1954), surely, but also The Life of Oharu (1952) and even an earlier film like Osaka Elegy (1936). A case in point: The scene in which Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) returns home after his dalliance with the ghostly Lady Wasaka (Machiko Kyo) is a crucial and mythic one, evoking among other things Odysseus's return to Ithaca. And Mizoguchi stages it memorably: Genjuro enters the near-ruin of his house and finds it empty and littered, the fire pit cold. The camera follows him through the house in a long unbroken take, watches as he goes out the back door and sees him through the windows as he circles the house and re-enters. Only this time when he enters, the room is clean and the fire is burning brightly; his wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), embraces him. Overwhelmed and exhausted, he lies down and falls into a deep sleep beside his son, only to wake in the morning to find the cold empty room he first entered and to learn that Miyagi is dead. It's a magnificent sequence, a tour de force of acting, directing, camerawork and editing (by Mitsuzo Miyata). It makes a larger, deeper point: that Genjuro will never escape from ghosts. A less gifted director than Mizoguchi would have used conventional techniques like dissolves or double exposures to make the point. But there's also something distracting about instead employing a long, circular tracking shot with an invisible cut: We marvel at the technique at the expense of sharing Genjuro's experience. There is an art that conceals art, and I don't think Mizoguchi attains it here.

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