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by Jay Seaver

"Moral of the story: Listen to your wife!"
5 stars

We don't seem to get many cinematic fables these days; audience's often like to think they're more sophisticated than their earnest moral messages and fantastic elements will often lead to a movie being dismissed as unrealistic in a different way. That hasn't always been the case, though, especially in Japan, which perhaps offers a bit of an explanation as to why Kenji Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu Monogatari" (often just "Ugetsu" when shown in the west) became and remains one of his most beloved features.

The story starts at a village in Omi during the latter half of the Sixteenth Century, a time and place of civil war. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is a talented craftsman while his neighbor and friend Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) drama of being a samurai. Though their wives Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) worry about the dangers of doing business during a war, Genjuro's success leads to him baking more pottery - at great risk - and bringing the group to sell it in a nearby city. Temptations abound, though; Tobei will see an opportunity to fulfill his ambitions while Genjuro and his work attract the attention of the mysterious Lady Wakasa (Michiko Kyo).

Maybe another reason that fables have fallen out of favor in many cases is that they often have morals like "listen to your wife when she says to temper your ambition", which can play as more of an affirmation of the status quo than is generally appreciated in a society that places more emphasis on individual accomplishment and upward mobility. Mizoguchi and the writers stack the deck in the right ways, at least; Tobei never seems to have the commitment a great warrior would need while there are certainly some practical reasons why now might not be the best time for Genjuro to seize opportunities. There's seldom much doubt that they are heading toward falls, but it's not in the face of reasonable expectations.

They are impressive falls, of course - a fable demands a lesson clearly taught - but the time of how they play out is simple, assured, and noon-hysterical. That's quite impressive considering that the stories playing out run the gamut from unlikely to grandly melodramatic and include a possible diversion into the supernatural. It's big storytelling that feels human in scale thanks in large part to Mizoguchi's deft direction, although the work of actors Masayuki Mori and Eitaro Ozawa should not be overlooked. Both Mori and Ozawa make their characters relatable even while shining a light on their tragic flaws, making it easy for the audience to go along with them. The women don't necessarily fare quite so well; aside from often having the hard luck of having to suffer on behalf of their husbands so that pride can be shown as having worse consequences than simple if harsh justice, Miyuki and Ohama are often defined by negatives rather than positives, giving Mitsuko Mito and to a greater extent Kinuyo Tanaka fewer chances to make an impression beyond dramatic wailing. Michiko Kyo probably has the best female role as Lady Wakasa, and she's largely a plot device.

Mizoguchi isn't just marshaling a cast, but also composing images, and he does that beautifully. There's a deceptive simplicity to Japanese movies of this era - not a whole lot of mucking about with the camera or excessive cutting - but Mizoguchi and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa do an especially great job of commanding the screen. Note how clear all the activity around Genjuro's kiln is toward the start of the movie, even when events start to get chaotic, or how action in the background as Miyuki returns home grabs just enough of a viewer's attention so that things can change without a cut.

It adds up to something of an odd film, not necessarily something that insists upon itself as a classic but which certainly carries itself as one. It's an enjoyably humble one, and I certainly found it to be a fine introduction to Mizoguchi's films.

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originally posted: 06/07/14 13:00:48
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User Comments

4/08/16 David Hollingsworth A work of chilling poetry and eerie brilliance. 5 stars
6/09/14 Richard Brandt Ghostly in all the best ways. 5 stars
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  DVD: 08-Nov-2005



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