Regent Film Library Spotlight: “Ugetsu”

“Ugetsu” is a tragic ghost story directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. It is a film adaptation inspired by stories from poet and author Akinari Ueda and Naturalist short story writer Guy de Maupassant. The two main characters in the film are Genjuro: a harsh and hard-working farmer who has also mastered pottery, and Tobei: Genjuro’s neighbor and assistant who has foolish ambitions of being a samurai. These two men take advantage of a destabilizing war in order to sell their pottery at great profit, which prompts them to create as large a batch of pottery as possible, much to the concern of their wives who urge the men to be more cautious. The men, heedless of their wives’ advice, decide to risk everything on their newest batch of pottery, even as the war impinges on their small village.

“Ugetsu” has all the stinging reality of a drama with the ghastly, eternal resonance of a tragic folk tale. The handling of the supernatural is so perfect that it nearly ceases to be supernatural; it takes on a human depth rare in ghost tales who regularly ascribe lingering spirits to concepts, metaphors, or pure malevolence. The craft-work of the film is such that it appears to merely be a directionless, emotional tragedy, but on subsequent viewings, the expert foreshadowing reveals that every plot occurrence was adroitly slotted to achieve maximum artistic and emotional effect. 

The Regent Film Library holds a two-disk, Criterion copy. Sadly, it does not contain the 72-page booklet which has an essay by film critic Phillip Lopate. The first disc has audio commentary by critic Tony Rayns along with a 14-minute-long video of appreciation by Masahiro Shinoda (director of “The Ballad of Orin”). The second disk contains the 1975 documentary film “Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life and Death of a Film Director.” There is also a 1992 interview with Kazuo Miyagawa (cinematographer for “Yojimbo,” “Rashomon”).

“Ugetsu” will appeal to admirers of drama and fantasy. It never steps too far into the nonreal at the expense of plot and character development; rather, the film feels genuine in its handling of both genres, exhibiting an awareness of the needs and limitations of each. It is a well-balanced movie that any adult or young adult could enjoy.