I finally got around to watching Ugetsu earlier this week. I had purchased this DVD earlier in the month before even seeing it with some tax return money. I knew it was a classic and it had a very extensive list of extras in the Criterion Collection edition so I figured it was worth a shot. It did not disapoint.
Ugetsu was made in 1953, after the war and many of its themes had to speak to the Japanese people at that time. The story follows two couples in 16th Century Japan as the country is awash in civil war. One man sees the war as an opportunity to get rich by selling pottery. The other man sees fame and fortune coming his way if only he can be a samurai. Despite pleas from their wives to not follow these dreams and greed both men go there own ways and to pretty tragic effect. The dialogue is rather simple. At times it even seems that it is a simple moral tale written for children against greed and maybe in part war. But, mainly through the direction and visuals the story becomes much more than you expect it to be. Suddenly you are dealing with the supernatural. You have ghosts, you have men in the grips of madness, and its all filmed beautifully.
I thought back after watching this to another post war Japanese film, Tokyo Story by Ozu. I was thinking bout how in Tokyo Story Ozu showed the falling apart of a family due to greed and ambition as well. His was set in modern times and displayed nothing in way of the supernatural. In Ugetsu Mizoguchi tackles teh same themes, with the supernatural and needs a different directing style because of it. Mizoguchi's camera always seems to be panning along away or towards a shot whereas Ozu was famous for the still camera shots. As contemporaries I am sure they respected eachother, and now years afterwards its fun to look back and see how their films echoed eacother in what they thought needed to be said about postwar Japan, even if it was done in much different styles. When I finally got around to watching the extras their was quite a bit mentioned about Ozu as well, more than I can get into here.
It's interesting especially to look at films like this, made over 50 years ago in the response to a war and see how they still apply today. Good stories are still good stories no matter how old, and especially so when magnificently told visually. It's depressing at the same time to see how they are still relevant and how a story like this has been told so many times, and how men and women still make the same mistakes. Ah, humanity!