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Ugetsu Monogatari

Ugetsu Monogatari

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On Sunday July 26 at 2:00 AM Turner Classic Movies TCM will air one of the greatest of all Japanese films: Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece Ugetsu Monogatari 1953.This month we are celebrating the grandest year in Hollywood's history, 1939.

The early 1950s represent the golden age of Japanese cinema.

With the end of WW II directors were freed from their duties as propaganda film makers.

Akira Kurasawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi, now created masterworks such as Rashomon 1950, Tokyo Story 1953, and Ugetsu Monogatari 1953.

Mizoguchi was the oldest of the three.

Although he made over 80 films (Most of which do not survive.) He was little known in the West.

Even today he is still not as well known in the US as Kurosawa (He is not even listed in the AFI Film Desk Reference), but he is greatly respected by film scholars and critics.

"Like Bach, Titian, and Shakespeare, he is the greatest in his art," according to French critic Jean Douchet, and in the New York Times, Vincent Canby lauded him as "one of the greatest film directors of the sound era."Set in Sixteenth Century Japan, a war torn and lawless land; bands of Brigands and outlaws ravaged the countryside as pirates plied the lakes and rivers searching for tribute.

The film is based on two stories from Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of the pale and mysterious moon after the rain.) published in 1776 by Akinari Ueda.Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review reveals how a great cultural divide prevented even a learned critic from relating to a completely different aesthetic.

He sensed beauty and value in Mizoguchi's work but he is unable to fully appreciate its complexities.

He predicts that "Ugetsu...will be hard for American audiences to comprehend...both the theme and style of exposition...have a strangely obscure, inferential, almost studiedly perplexing quality.

Indeed, it is this peculiar vagueness and use of symbolism and subterfuge that give to this Oriental [sic] fable what it has of a sort of eerie charm."Uegtsu is a tale of the greed and envy of two brothers, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa).

They are both farmers, with great aspirations.

Genjuro dreams of becoming a prominent pottery merchant and Tobei, a samurai; the pair of brazen opportunists leave their wives and children to the ravages of war for fame and fortune in the city.

While Genjuro is seduced by the mysterious, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo), who we later learn is a ghost.

Back home his wife is murdered by a band of beggars.

Tobei is able to gain a prominent position as a Samurai warlord through deceit, while his desperate wife sells herself as a prostitute.Gary Morris suggests that that Ugetsu.

Might infact have a number of autobiographical details.

Mizoguchi's father lost the family fortune in a risky business venture, forcing a move to a poor district, and his 14-year-old sister Suzu "was put up for adoption and eventually sold to a geisha house." Ugetsu is brilliant visually and technically.

From the opening scene, the camera never stops moving.

Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa remembered that Mizoguchi told him that the beginning of the film should literally unfold like an emakimono, a traditional Japanese scroll painting, saying, "The pictures should roll out like scrolls." Miyagawa recalled that most of the shots were tracking shots.

Often the movement in those scenes is barely perceptible, but Mizoguchi wanted the constant motion to create a certain uneasiness about the place and its inhabitants.

David Thomson observes that his "camera is often detached from human action, looking down on it, moving in order to see it more clearly and to explain consequences and feelings." The famous Lake Biwa scene is perhaps the most beautiful in the film with boats coming and going in the wonderful fog and mist.

It was actually painstakingly shot in a studio tank.

Adding to the ethereal atmosphere is the musical score by Mizoguchi's favorite collaborator Fumio Hayasaka, which mixes Japanese and Western instruments and rhythms to great effect.

Samisens, Flutes and Harps are combined with haunting effect.In comparing him to Kurosawa Jacques Rivette states that Mizoguchi alone, imposes a feeling of a unique world and language, is answerable only to himself.

If Mizoguchi captivates us, it is because he never sets out deliberately to do so and never takes sides with the spectator.

He seems to be the only Japanese director who is completely Japanese and yet is also the only one that achieves a true universality, that of an individual."Thomson describes the powerfully moving final scene has Genjuro's son at his mother's grave as the camera cranes up to a panoramic view of fields being tilled as "one of the most moving shots in all cinema: the rise of the cameras expressing subdued hope and human transience: death and life in one image show the harmony of tragedy and happiness."Roger Ebert writes that "at the end of Ugetsu, aware we have seen a fable, we also feel curiously as if we have witnessed true lives and fates".
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