Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Watching An Old Classic Again

Another film I watched for the second time last weekend was Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari, a canonical work from 1953. The experience was unfortunately a disappointment; I had just been caught in a downpour before I went into the cinema so I watched the film sitting in sodden clothes. This may or may not have had any bearing on the film not being quite as good as when I saw it last about eight years ago. The tale of two brothers, one a successful potter and the other a simpleton with delusions about being a Samurai, and their two wives caught up in the Japanese civil wars of the 16th century. One brother goes off and finagles his way into a Samurai position by killing a genuine soldier and claiming his booty as his own. Meanwhile his wife, at home and unprotected is raped by marauding soldiers and eventually sells herself into prostitution. The other brother is duped into a bigamous marriage with an admiring aristocrat, who it turns out is a ghost. When he returns home he discovers that his wife has been killed by more soldiers.

The film is a caution against pride and hubris, and while it might seem conservative in the synopsis above, there is a strongly transgressive nature to it, as in all Mizoguchi's work. The portrayal of a Samurai as a cowardly impostor would have been unthinkable ten years before under the Empire, and as is common with Mizoguchi, the women are far more admirable characters. I remember thinking the film was one of the best thirty or so I had ever seen but on second viewing it appeared lugubrious (the friend I saw it with, someone not adverse to such films, claimed that he was bored). The shimmering monochrome photography of the great Kazuo Miyagawa, who also worked with Kurosawa, Ozu and Ichikawa among others, is still fantastic, as is the portrayal of the mad brother by Eitarô Ozawa, which is disturbing in direct proportion to how annoying it is. And the famous (or at least to hardcore cinéphiles) scene towards the end where Genjurô the potter returns to his family, not knowing that the wife he sees is but a ghost, is as moving as it was last time I saw it.

Perhaps the film needs another watch; I have seen about ten films by Mizoguchi since I last saw Ugetsu and they are of varying quality. Some are boring and too stately, others such as Sansho Dayu and Streets of Shame are exhilarating. The interest in many of them is the way they reflect the time in which they were made, as Mizoguchi worked from the early silent era, through the Imperial era and into the post-war democratic age, making over 100 films, about half of which have been lost. There is still enough in Ugetsu Monagatari (which, incidentally, means 'Tale of the Pale and Silvery Moon after the Rain') for it to remain indisputably a great film, but the nature of such slow and old-fashioned work is fragile and something can go amiss on second viewing.