Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Samurai dreams and stranger things

By Edward Copeland
As I continue my journey through as many of the films on our final list for the non-English language film survey as I can before the Sept. 16 deadline, I've now watched Kenji Mizoguchi's 1953 classic Ugetsu (or Ugetsu monogotari, depending which title you prefer). It starts slowly, but it certainly builds and contains stunning camerawork and a simple message that stands true for all time: Be careful what you wish for.

Late in Ugestu, a character comments that success always comes at a price and it's a lesson the two brothers learn the hard way in Mizoguchi's film.

Set during Japan's civil war period in the 16th century, Ugetsu tells the story of Genjuro and Tobei (Masayuki Mori, Eitarô Ozawa) who are struggling to support their families in a small village.

Genjuro has a sideline of making exquisite pottery, which he often sells to make ends meet for his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and his young son Genichi (Ikio Sawamura).

Tobei fantasizes about a life as a noble samurai warrior. When the warfare reaches their village, Genjuro and Tobei decide to embark on a hazardous journey to sell more of Genjuro's crafts, taking along Tobei's wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) since she's the daughter of a famous oarsman and will help them guide their boat across risky waters.

From there on, war becomes the least of their problems as they all are separated on their quest and Miyagi faces her own trials left alone with the boy.

Genjuro manages to sell his wares, but is soon separated from his money until he falls under the spell of a noblewoman named Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô) whom Genjuro marries, despite his wife at home.

Tobei and Ohama are separated from one another but through a somewhat happy accident involving a warrior, Tobei actually fulfills his dream of becoming a samurai with riches and followers. Ohama's fate is far less fortunate.

To reveal much more would ruin the spell for future viewers, but Ugetsu earns its slow build and rewards the patient viewer. Mizoguchi's camera proves often fluid, effortlessly panning from one setting to the next, even when the next involves characters who were in the previous scene. Some of these sequences are quite remarkable.

If nothing else comes out of my little survey, finally seeing Ugetsu will be reward enough. It's a remarkable piece of work even more than 50 years later.

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