I'd like to think of the hobby of watching films as a journey through a forest. The films are the trees, and the path takes us down and around all sorts of vistas. Some are worth our time, some not, and some we mark down on a map so we could find them later and return to marvel at them.
Film, for me, is just like the realities depicted in this film, where we wonder from one ghost world to another. We deceive ourselves; let ourselves be deceived. And what a marvellous poem is Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu monogatari" (1953), a film about twofold ambition: fame and money, and creating art. Art is always about risking everything, and continuing even if we might lose everything. As such, the film is a treasure trove of creativity, passion and genius.
Ugetsu is also one of the most lucid meditations on the "what if". It seems like the film were made of short segments, each then plunging into the "what if" in an alternate dimension, and deeper we go so that by the time we escape the illusion of the manor, we arrive fresh at the illusion of a happy family, until the reality kicks in.
The ghost story is central, too, but perhaps not so extensively as the reputation of the film might suggest. I'd consider it more as the matter through which Mizoguchi channels his meditations on art, death and lust, and I believe it actually benefits the first viewings of the film if it's not too strictly tied in the ghost story tradition, or at least keeping in mind that this is actually a mélange of three short stories, two from Ueda Akinari and one from Guy de Maupassant. Not that this isn't a powerful predecessor to "Onibaba" (1964), "Kaidan" (1964) and "Yabu no naka no kuroneko" (1968), it's always advisable to avoid generic categorization so as not to be led astray to see a film that doesn't really exist. As for the ghost story aspect, the Criterion DVD prints the stories it's based on, but I'd direct you to a wonderful collection of Chinese ghost stories similar in spirit, Pu Songling's "Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio," available through Penguin Classics. These stories unwrap the depth of the narrative at play in Ugetsu, too, and how the supernatural is like Lake Biwa through which the group travels in the spectral mist. I've written about this before, but I'd really love to know whether Mizoguchi knew Dreyer's "Vampyr" (1932), since that iconic Lake Biwa scene is so similar in atmosphere to a certain scene in Dreyer's phantasmagoria.
But the real ghost is in the visuals. Cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo stated in 1992, as recorded by Phillip Lopate*, that they used a crane about 70 percent of the time. The camera, then, is the ghost, who sees everything and moves anyway it wants, joining the worlds together seamlessly as it hovers through the air in so many shots, so beautifully one wonders what superhuman skill it must have taken to make those things work. In Lopate's eloquent expression, "it is the movie's supreme balancing act to be able to move seamlessly between the realistic and the otherworldly."** The final homecoming, one of the most heart-rending of them all, is where all the worlds intertwine and become transparent planes atop each other.
It's staggeringly past belief how much quality cinema was created in Japan during the fifties, even the few years from 1950 to 1955. Kurosawa was deservedly taking the world by storm, but in the quiet corner Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi were making the films of their lives, "Ugetsu" is rightfully grouped in that class of unique films.
When Criterion released this on DVD in 2005, it was a one of a kind film event for me. It was the first Mizoguchi in the collection, and I already owned "Saikaku ichidai onna" (1952) on DVD, courtesy of Artificial Eye, and "Sanshô dayû" (1954) on videotape, courtesy of BFI. Having Mizoguchi on DVD was, at the time, almost as radical a thought as wishing now that one might find some Naruse on Blu-ray someday. But fans of Mizoguchi's art are well- catered to: not only do we have several DVDs, a large body of work is actually available on Blu-ray, as well: Criterion and Masters of Cinema have released "Sansho," the latter have also released Ugetsu and — let's count together — six (!) other Mizoguchi's on Blu (although it was a limited edition and somebody's getting rich by selling them nowadays), and Artificial Eye have released four earlier masterworks.
* Phillip Lopate, "From the Other Shore," 12. Printed in the DVD booklet of the Criterion Collection edition of Ugetsu Monogatari, released in 2005.
** ibid., 10.
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