A full afternoon's worth of classic Japanese cinema from yesteryear is, indeed, something to savour, provided you are in the right mood for it. And part of the joys of reviewing such material - material that you may not have any prior knowledge of - is the discovery of something fresh, individual, poignant and just, well, special. Celebrated Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi has two of his movies presented here on this double-disc deluxe package from Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series and I will that admit that both titles were complete mysteries to me. The write-up suggested that the first of the two, 1953's Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales Of The Rain And Moon), was based on a classic ghost story - something that Japan has a justifiably famous heritage of - and it was this that initially drew me in. The style of vintage Japanese cinema - tending to portray delicate emotions and critique of social mores against a swirling, often chaotic backdrop of war or upheaval - is often of an exquisitely detailed milieu that betrays deep psychologies, twisted honour and a lyrical, cyclical narrative that reveals hidden truths and profound destinies. And the overwrought Ugetsu Monogatari is no exception.
“Money is everything, see? Without it, life is hard ...”
Set in the countryside during a feudal uprising, the tale revolves around two married couples and the differing ideologies that the husbands have. Both expect more out of life and are prepared to do whatever it takes to better their lot. Genjuro (Mori Masayuki) is a farmer but his sideline is pottery. Discovering that he has quite a talent for manufacturing beautiful items, he keeps his kiln on the go all day every day and sells his wares in the neighbouring town, eventually making a name for himself and turning a decent and addictive profit. His friend Tobei (Ozawa Sakae) has radically different aspirations. He sees the wandering Samurai and hears tales of derring-do from the battlefields that are creeping ever-closer, and just wants to don armour and command troops. But as Genjuro's venture gains ground and his keeps ending in ridicule - passing troops just shun his attentions as being those of a foolish beggar - he agrees to postpone his dreams and helps his friend firing and selling pots for a third of the profit. Then the war comes to town and the village is shockingly raided and pillaged by the evil Lord Shibata's soldiers, who rape the women, force then men-folk into labour and drive out all survivors into the surrounding hills. Fleeing their homes, Genjuro and Tobei and their wives hide out in the wilderness, before Genjuro decides to go back to the wrecked village and rescue the remains of his wares in the hope of selling them and finding the group some money.
Successfully evading capture, the group gather up the remaining pots and ceramics and take a boat across the eerie, fog-enshrouded Lake Azumi, dodging patrols of renegade warriors and coming across the dying victim of an attack by pirates. Fearing trouble ahead, Genjuro's wife, Miyagi, played by the esteemed and very forthright Japanese actress Tanaka Kinuyo, opts to hide away in the mountains with their young son, Gen'ichi, whilst the others push on with the promise that they will return to her in ten day's time. But, as with poor old Odysseus and his pledge to return to his wife Penelope after the Trojan War, things are not going to be that straightforward. What follows sees Tobei actually achieve his dream of becoming a renowned Samurai - by virtue of a lucky, if unlikely, turn of events and Genjuro fall for the charms of a mysterious enchantress who ensnares him in what is the pivotal, and most effective, part of the story ... the ghost story that dominates the middle section and sees that proceedings will eventually turn full and tragic circle.
The theme of a lost soul finding himself at the strange home of a seemingly benign, yet dislocated family or individual, is one of the foundation stones of Japanese supernatural fiction. Forget the harrowing, but now stereotypical visage of a girl with long wet hair, the traditional oriental ghost is far more persuasive and beguiling than that, although few would believe that Genjuro was making the right move when he fell for the tempting Lady Wakasa (Kyo Machiko). This section is splendidly dark and spellbinding, the score by Hayasaka Fumio excellently providing some clues as to the real predicament Genjuro has irresponsibly become embroiled in. A sinister Samurai helmet seems to sing menacingly as Lady Wakasa tightens the trap around the smitten potter and her ever-present lady-in-waiting, played expertly with persistent verve by Mori Kikune, perpetually twitters and croons in the background. Elsewhere, roving bands of rapists and the starving soldiers of the defeated enemy make life misery for the women - Miyagi desperately clinging onto her son in the wilderness and praying that husband returns soon, and Tobei's wife, Ohama (Mito Mitsuko) forced into making a huge and life-altering decision after being caught and abused. Nothing will ever be the same again, although, like the best of traditional tales of doom and destiny, the events will dovetail back in on themselves and all will ultimately be reunited ... though with possibly devastating results.
Ugetsu is a great film, folks. It has a truly unpredictable nature. You literally do not know what is going to happen next. Plus, for a film from 1953 - and bear in mind this was made during the period of American occupation and much of Japanese cinema was being banned or censored for their perceived feudalism - it is surprisingly intense. Although rated a PG today, there are scenes of gang-rape, murder, brothel entertainment and even a ritual beheading. The often cruel nature of the times is depicted without being showy or sensational - much of the violence actually happens off-camera, although you are left in no doubt as to what has just taken place. The emotional element is strong and some sequences, especially those involving Miyagi and her son, are quite disturbing. Personally, though, I loved it. With excellent cinematography from Miyagawa Kazuo and tremendous locations and set-design, Ugetsu Monogatari is a visually captivating exercise in purely cinematic style. Check out the fantastic tracking shot that slowly withdraws from two characters relaxing in a hot-spa, travels over the ground into the distance and then dissolves into another shot of the same pair sitting having a picnic - as though we have just left them at one side of the screen and then found them again at the other. The menace of the supernatural elements - there are more ghosts at work than is initially apparent - is neatly turned on its head by its emotional relevance and melancholic symmetry and the story is neatly episodic, yet constantly aware of its wider implications. The haunting coda is delightfully evocative as well, and the film is always brilliantly acted, with the likes of Masayuki, Machiko and Kinuyo really standing out.
“One day, my sister will be free ... and then you will have no need of me.”
The second film in the package is Mizoguchi Kenji's earlier Oyu-Sama, from 1951. Translated as Miss Oyu, this is another literary adaptation, but this time of a much more recent novel of then-current Japanese social restraints, perversities and the stigmas that such traditional repressions can have on people, by acclaimed writer Tanizaki Jun'ichirio. Starring Tanaka Kinuyo - who, as you have read, would go on to star in Ugetsu Monongatari - as the titular Oyu, a woman and mother recently widowed who becomes the object of love by her own younger sister's pledged suitor from an arranged marriage. Immediately striking-up a similar connection with the man, Shinnosuke (Hori Yuji), but resolutely unable to marry him due to the fierce traditional mores and social constraints that she adheres to, the two form an awkward and uneasy alliance that causes tongues to wag and reputations to be sullied. Shinnosuke actually marries the sister, the increasingly frail and isolated Oshizu (played fantastically by Otowa Nobuko) and a sort of perverse love triangle is created. Crushingly, Oshizu understands the relationship that is going on (or rather not going on, but strongly desired, just the same) and even concedes that her marriage to Shinnosuke should be a sham and just there for set-dressing, so that Oyu and Shinnosuke can carry on seeing each other under the smokescreen of being in-laws. But this devoted sacrifice to her already bereaved sister is going to take its toll and the path of true love, in this case, will definitely not run smooth.
Although the occasionally volatile Tanaka Kinuyo is monumentally miscast as a woman who must keep her feelings hidden and her outward appearance serene and glacial, she puts in a great performance that is annoyingly fashioned out of purely ridiculous social primitivism. That the older-than-you-think Oyu and Shinnosuke must become dowdy and melancholy is a given considering their uncomfortable position, but it is how the supreme Oshizu deals with it with selfless martyrdom and a churning conscience that makes the film so watchable. There may not be any ghosts or rogue warriors this time around, and most of the action takes place over kneeling figures, walks beside the lake or hushed conversations and guarded looks, but there is a palpable tension to the ensuing drama. Oshizu has a lot on her plate and seems content to consign herself to a life of charade and inner loneliness and dejection, yet even her plans for her sister's happiness are bound to come unglued as more tragedy befalls them and a further wedge is driven between the mistimed and misplaced lovers.
As social drama, Oyu-Sama is exquisitely drawn and as pure a snapshot time capsule into the mores of the day as you could wish for. Like a lot of such international fare from the fifties - particularly Italy as well as China and Japan - the fascinating thing is how the views of the old world collide with the undeniable and inexorable winds of change that swept across the entire world in the wake of WWII. Without a doubt, these slightly insubstantial and hugely restrained stories reveal details and attitudes that text-books cannot convey. Which, of course, makes the likes of Oyu-Sama sound as boring as an economics lesson when, in fact, the story and the characters are, in their own way, just as dynamic and affecting as those portrayed in the feudal troubles and otherworldly shenanigans of Ugetsu Monogatari - which is obviously the point. The lingering vestiges of old values are surrounded and beaten down by newer attitudes and freedoms and this conflict is just as acutely felt in the household as it is on the battlefield. This may not be fully accurate for Oyu, Shinnosuke or Oshizu - as their tale comes just before the big change - but their plight is part and parcel of how Japan would ultimately absorb Western values into their own culture and such marital dilemmas would become a matter-of-course.
Filmed in a terrifically fluid manner by Mayagawa Kazuo (as with Ugetsu), Oyu-Sama takes advantage of lush gardens, parks, lakeside views and an achingly soft-focus pastoral aesthetic. Kenji's direction is coolly intimate, yet detached enough to keep emotions in check. You continually have the feeling that everyone is holding back and that the dams will surely burst at some point, and this pregnant intensity is quite brilliantly evoked in what is, ostensibly, a slow-burn observation of moral dilemma and emotional barricading.
Of the two, I much prefer Ugetsu, as much for its period setting and sheer unpredictability as for its eeriness, poeticism and tragedy. But I was surprised by how much I warmed to Oyu-Sama as well, which is definitely not my normal tipple. Both films are tremendously evocative, well-produced and performed and immensely stylish. Apparently, the director wasn't overly satisfied with either of them, despite the fact that they went on to become acknowledged classics. Ugetsu Monongatari actually won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival - in a year when nothing presented to the panel was deemed worthy of winning the first prize of the Golden Lion! But it seems that Kenji already had a bee in his bonnet over a certain other Japanese filmmaker who was gaining awards and accolades at the same time - a young upstart in the business by the name of Akira Kurosawa, whose Rashomon has already scooped the Golden Lion at the same time Oyu-Sama was virtually ignored.
This double-disc set comes with a reversible sleeve that depicts the original cover art for the two films and is highly recommended for fans of international cinema and those who enjoy good stories told in a slightly unorthodox fashion.
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