[The following is a belated entry in last year's Blind Spots series.]
The rhyming book-end shots that open and close Ugetsu—the first shot an out-to-in establishment of a village that hones in on its main characters, the final one a move outward from those who remain to that same village horrifically altered—tidily summarize the intricate formal arrangement of Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterpiece, their inverse compositions and movements indicative of the thorough visual mapping of the entire film. The early shots are almost literally straightforward, with camera setups that view its laterally arranged characters from perpendicular positions. These compositions match the bluntness of the narrative setup: Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), a local potter, sets out with his friend Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) to sell his wares in neighboring areas as a civil war heats up between rival daimyo. Genjuro’s wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), frets about him going to cities filled with soldiers, but otherwise their lives are tranquil.
That all changes, however, with an axial cut. Returning from a wildly successful trip, Genjuro shows Miyagi a pouch filled to the brim with silver, and Mizoguchi cuts from a long shot of the two to a medium shot of Miyagi weighing the coin in her hand that betrays her own excitement at this lavish payday. Even so, she remembers her wise reservations, but Genjuro now is hooked on the promise of further profit. Spare exteriors of the small village give way to a shot of the family’s cramped workspace, with Genjuro in the foreground obsessively shaping clay as numerous completed pots surround him. In the background, Miyagi turns the pottery wheel and their children enter, instantly yelled at by Genjuro as he attempts to finish his load. One gets an instant portrait of the man’s greed in this image, with the potentially lucrative fruits of Genjuro’s labor crowded closely around him while his family is pushed out of his mind. Relegated to the sidelines for much of the film’s beginning, Tobei, too, prioritizes his desires over his loved ones, constantly trying to pledge himself to roving warlords in the hopes of becoming a samurai. He scarcely occupies the screen because he lingers in every other town, bowing and scraping as the camera seems to drag along the ground in kind, capturing only the armored feet of the warriors who mock and spurn him.
This being a Mizoguchi film, the rest follows naturally: the myopic greed of the men results in pure chaos, most catastrophically wrought upon the women who are almost literally set adrift, abandoned by the husbands who row on from their raided village to pursue their dreams. But Ugetsu operates less as a travelogue of suffering, as, say, Sansho the Bailiff does, than a moral fable that unfurls in ways that upend the ostensible realism of the film’s judiciously shot and paced first act. The signs that something may be amiss come early, when the two families set out on a boat after their village is pillaged. The frame fades to black from the final, brutal shot of the erstwhile peaceful hamlet in disarray before coming back up on their boat emerging from the mist as if a ghost ship, with Tobei’s wife standing on the bow like Charon. Then their boat is met by a true ghost ship, littered with bodies slain by pirates and a sole survivor who clings to life just long enough to warn the families of the death that awaits on the water.
Yet when actual ghosts invade the film, these ethereal touches revert back to the more tactile style that characterizes the earlier scenes. When the supernatural truly takes hold, it occurs with a single cut: Genjuro walks to a nearby manor in a long shot in which wild grass and reeds throw obscuring lines over the frame, the untidy image reflective of decay and abandon. With a simple cut and the turn of a corner, however, the manor is revealed in unvarnished glory, an unmolested landmark in the midst of destruction that makes no overtures toward something being amiss but clangs against the space the camera has searched around it. What might otherwise seem a continuity error is the giveaway, confirmed when the lady of the castle appears and addresses Genjuro by name and declares that his reputation precedes him. Having already half-forgotten his family even when they sat feet away from him, the potter naturally does not question why this noblewoman would have heard of him, obviously finding it just that he should be revered on sight as a master of his craft, and also that a woman from a caste far above his would beg for his hand in marriage.
Of course, this woman and her castle, like the rest of the area, has in fact been scorched from the earth, which would make Genjuro’s appropriative fantasy of her, meeting her spirit and immediately shackling it to his own wants, mordantly funny were it not merely one stage of an increasingly fraught depiction of oblivious male entitlement and its side effects. Ugetsu acts out a kind of cosmic balance in relation to its male characters and the women related to them: Genjuro makes money hand over fist selling storage pots to various armies while Miyagi and their children starve; Tobei cons his way into being accepted as a fighter, complete with armor and katana, while his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) is forced to become a prostitute for the sort of men Tobei admires for taking what they please. Genjuro’s fantasy with the noblewoman turns sour when the camera moves from him and the ghost relaxing in a hot spring surrounded with lush vegetation and a riverbank picnic to a hard cut that returns to Miyagi hiding with her child as soldiers drag out another village woman to rape. Indeed, if the film can be said to have any humor at all, it is that Miyagi, slain by some desperate soldiers trying to take her baby’s food, comes back as a ghost, her spirit’s promise to watch over him forever superficially continuing her role as the supplicant companion of her husband but, from another angle, at last preventing him from ever escaping her sight.
It is a strange thing to approach this, Mizoguchi’s most well-known, canonical feature, after seeing six of his other movies, yet by the same token I’m glad not to have seen this when I was a budding cinephile around 18-20, lest I might have missed the film’s greatest virtues in favor of focusing mostly on its story. That is not to say that the film is not strongly written: were Mizoguchi no more than a competent shooter, Ugetsu would still be a sufficiently compelling morality play and supernatural mystery. But it is through his direction that the film makes its deepest marks: the tension he derives solely from a camera placement, how the mise-en-scène of Genjuro’s time with the noblewoman’s spirit gradually turns more and more into that of a horror film, with inky negative space and shrinking spatial dimensions. The script is filled with anguish, but it is Mizoguchi’s patience, his gift for unhurried editing that nonetheless manages to be emotionally kinetic, that elevates Ugetsu and makes it, like the rest of the director’s best work, timeless.