Mizoguchi’s Ravishing ‘Ugetsu’ Is Never More Alive Than When It Crosses Into Death


At once monumental and light as mist, Kenji Mizoguchi’s ravishing ghost fantasia Ugetsu (released in 1953 and set in 16th-century Japan) finds its peasant potters fleeing the circumstances of their present (as a warlord’s army claims their village) while chasing chimerical visions of a better future. One man seizes the money his wife is counting on and blows it on secondhand samurai armor. Another ditches his own partner to sink into an even less likely opportunity: the alluring necro-life in an out-of-time estate with a pale beauty whose visage is forever smudged by the grave. With rare humanity, Mizoguchi reveals the toll these misadventures take on the souls of both men and their wives, many moments an uncanny synthesis of the realistic and the otherworldly.

The film lures us just as it does its central couples: Mizoguchi’s attention to the practicalities of these hard lives (the toil, the marauding soldiers, the impossibility of heroism, the limited choices available to women) ensures that, when the men get overwhelmed by the fantasies that finally doom them, we too feel relief and wonder. Most wondrous of all, of course: the two couples’ fog-choked escape from their village, as they glide in a small boat along Lake Biwa, the world around them either dissolving away or being born again as something new and strange. This is one of world cinema’s greatest films, beautifully restored, never more alive than when it crosses into death.

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Janus Films
Opens March 3, Film Forum