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Ugetsu monogatari (1953)
A haunting, sublimely beautiful piece of cinema
Set amidst a war-torn feudal Japan in the 16th century, this tells the tale of two peasants who yearn for success, one in terms of wealth, the other as a samurai warrior. Together they disregard the welfare of their families and follow their ambition, and learn the hard way the folly of their desires.
Mizoguchi is an exemplary film maker, often overshadowed by the attention received by Kurosawa. Ugetsu is the second of his films I have seen, following the exceptional Sansho Dayu, and possesses a quality that transends the sublime and enters richly lyrical territories. His compositions are beautiful; not a frame of film is wasted in depicting the characters and their surroundings with astonishing vividity. It is wholly justified for winning the Venice Film Festival's top prize in 1953.
The peasant who seeks wealth finds himself seduced by the ghost of a princess whose family home was wiped out, and who was resurrected by her nurse to give her the chance at love that she never experienced in life. His friend finds success as a samurai- not through any prowess or skill, but by luck- but he too finds his actions carry a duplicitous edge to them, as the fortunes of his wife are unfavourable, to say the least.
While much of the imagery is harsh; implicit rapes, murders, mass looting and deprivation of hard working peasants- the overall tone is far from defeatist. That was Mizoguchi's power, as evidenced in Sansho Dayu. He was not only one of cinema's greatest directors of women; in the case of Ugetsu Monogatari, he also captures the essence of the endurance of human love, transcending even death.
See it and be amazed.
The epitome of Kurosawa's unique humanist approach
As a great fan of Kurosawa, and of Japanese cinema on the whole, Ikiru was a great find for me, rarely receiving the exposure of Seven Samurai, Rashomon et al (although they too are unique and defining films).
The story of aging clerk Watanabe discovering he has cancer manages to be deeply moving without stooping to maudlin sentimentality, as is so common in Hollywood productions that deal with the same theme (just watch Terms of Endearment). Here it is a process of catharsism that leads him through the early days of hedonism to the enlightened finale where he justifies his life as a human being of worth.
One of the defining post-war Japanese films along with the likes of Tokyo Story, it reflects a society amidst the turmoil of reconstruction, both politically and economically, and ultimately emotionally. The image of Watanabe on the swings is one of cinema's greatest moments, reflecting a poignancy that for me has become synonymous with the best of Japanese cinema, from Mizoguchi to Takeshi Kitano. A profound and personal film from the most renowned of Japanese directors.
Anyone with a modicum of compassion and patience will recognise it for the masterpiece that it is.