Gansuko is a dirt poor farmer with a wife, kid, mortgage and a giant kiln. That’s right Gansuko moonlights as a pottery maker, I’m sorry..artist. When he’s not a struggling farmer planting crops, he’s throwing clay and ordering his wife to tend the massive fires. That’s what she’s good for after all. As he sells more work and gets money, his demeanor, personality and motivations change. Greed takes over as it usually does and his wife is left to pick up the pieces quite literally. In the midst of a violent civil war, he leaves his wife to sell his wares, and encounters an enchanting woman, ready to take care of his every need from here to eternity. What will he choose? More importantly what is the proper Kimono for this situation?
It’s not all tea time, rock gardens and bamboo sticks in this flick. I thought for sure, if it had no color I was going to be using it as my go to sleep movie for the next week or so, exhaustingly trying to slog through it and rolling my eyes at all the indoor sets, overacting and the odious possibility of slapstick humor.
Happily I was quite wrong. This film was excellent in a way I found more intrinsically pleasing than many (almost all) of Kurosawa’s- possible exception of Ran. I wish it had been in color but I didn’t feel deprived of excitement or story in anyway. A special attention was paid by Director Kenji Mizoguchi to the mise-en-scène, to the long takes as well as the high contrast dusk cinematography. Mizoguchi, praised effusively by Godard and other French New Wavers for these attributes seemed to take it in stride. Indeed for him it almost seemed like for all his setups, arrangements of accoutrements, gaffing effects and 100 take rehearsals, he was practically filming cinéma vérité. He wanted the viewer to be ensconced within the scene so absolutely that it would begin to transcend that color barrier. As a fan of extreme naturalism, I normally find older or traditional classical film set up to be super boring, like your grandmas soap opera. This is why I have such a hard time with French New Wave. That and Godard is totally overrated but that is neither here nor there.
Ugetsu is successful because it transcends modern tastes (at least mine) in it’s script and story and has this noir edge while retaining a sense if warmth through distance. Specificity widening to display the communal. The subject matter had an edge and depicted rape and adultery not normally seen in 1953. Mizoguchi is also thought of as the first Japanese feminist filmmaker and rather than being all over the top shouting in your face about it, he quietly and successfully depicts the life and times of everyday women, prostitutes, beggars, geishas, workers and in this case downtrodden housewives in Japanese feudal society. It won the Silver Lion at Venice that year and I can greatly appreciate why. Criterion picked a winner.