johnlink ranks UGETSU MONOGATARI (1953)

Generally speaking, the three directors from the Golden Age of Japanese film are considered to be (in no particular order) Ozu, Kurosawa, and Kenji Mizoguchi. I’ve seen precious little Ozu, but have at least seen one full length. I’ve seen several from Kurosawa. But until last night, I had seen nothing by Mizoguchi. Now I can say that I am glad that I have.


I watched UGETSU MONOGATARI (1953) on 9.16.13. It was my first viewing of the film. (You will sometimes see this film billed as, simply, UGETSU. The English translation of the title roughly comes out as Tales of the Moon and Rain, though this is one of those rare Japanese films which we Americans never bothered to Anglicize in common film language.)

Mizoguchi was a painter as well as a filmmaker, and his sense of depth and the effect of contrast is trickled throughout this picture. UGETSU plays like a dream which we are not sure is a dream: We are offered much to establish a realistic reality and then confronted with a supernatural or impossible element which questions our assumptions. His shots are beautifully constructed and meticulously efforted. In fact, I’m going to turn to the late great Roger Ebert for a quick nugget which I would not have pulled out myself:

“Mizoguchi (1898-1956) was famous for the theory that one scene should equal one cut, although sometimes he made exceptions. The great Yasujiro Ozu had the same theory, with the difference that Ozu’s camera never moved in his later films, while Mizoguchi’s style was constructed around flowing, poetic camera movement.”

In this film, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) begins a hardworking business man who finds success due to the extra money which the combatants of a 16th century Japanese civil brought to his rural life. He becomes more hardworking, but also more greedy. His wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) is happy for the spoils, but warns him from being too money hungry.

In a parallel story, Genjuro’s brother Tobee (Eitaro Ozawa) longs to be a samurai. The fact that he lacks training, money, status, or knowledge are no stop to him. He wants the easy path to glory. His wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) laments his childishness and his frequent escapes to try his hand at becoming samurai.

These stories run together. What effectively happens is that the brothers chase their ghosts (which turns out to be literal and figurative) at the expense of their wives. Genjuro leaves his wife behind in a war torn area to make money, and ends up the victim of a ghostly woman who seeks love.  He forgets all about his wife and child back home, who is treated to an onslaught of raids from soldiers and frequent starvation.

In Tobee’s case, his fleeing leads directly to his wife’s rape as she tries to track him down. He ultimately achieves glory through deception and luck, while she becomes a woman of the night.

That these men are given an opportunity to redeem themselves shows the humanity inherent in the story. It is arguable which of the women suffers more, but there is no arguing the cause of the suffering is their husband.

Tobee and Genjuro are separate cases. In Genjuro we see the fall of a great man and father. We see him lured by the temptations of money and lust. We see a man who is married more to material things than he is to his wife.

In Tobee we see a man who has never had to become a man. He acts impulsively, childishly. He becomes a success through no honest means. The lure of greatness supersedes any thought of his wife.  We see a man who is more married to the ego than he is to his wife.

Both are likable for their faults. Tobee is funny, providing much of the comic relief in the film. Genjuro is a good father and solid husband at the film’s outset. We know that his goal, initially, is to make good by his family. As we watch him get swept away in the tide of fortune, we hope he can swim back.

Mizoguchi condemns them both through their wives. The pain of the men is emotional rather than experiential. They see the product of their single-mindedness, even if they don’t have to go through it themselves. We get the sense that Mizoguchi has a hard time forgiving them for that, even as we do as an audience.


This is a beautiful film to behold. The above scene on the water is hauntingly foggy and perfectly shot. The scenes with the ghosts are not quite right, while never feeling forced. A moment at the end with Genjuro returning home gives all its answers in a subtle film trick at the start of the scene. It happens so quickly you question what you saw. Film audiences of 1953 did not have the luxury of backing up the movie on the DVR. I wish I hadn’t either. I thought I saw something, thought I saw an impossible thing happen, but wasn’t sure. I wish I had experienced the entire scene with that uncertainty rather than feeling like I had to be the smartest guy in a room I was alone in.

This is wonderful Japanese cinema. In terms of entertainment, it falls in a place better than the slice of life brought forth by Ozu and not quite as freewheeling as the adventurous films of Kurosawa. It held me quite at attention throughout. It made me eager to find some more Mizoguchi to absorb.



The score of this film is absolutely perfect. Often, a single drum, or a single instrument plays like a heartbeat at varying rates. Sometimes the music becomes fantastical. When the choice is silence, we can feel the silence. Truly awesome music.



~ by johnlink00 on September 17, 2013.

2 Responses to “johnlink ranks UGETSU MONOGATARI (1953)”


  2. […] being impressed greatly by Kenji  Mizoguchi’s UGESTU, I’ll certainly give anything else of his a shot. WOMEN OF THE NIGHT comes in five years […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: