Ugetsu
R0 - Australia - Umbrella Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (20th January 2017).
The Film

“Ugetsu” 「雨月物語」 (1953)

It was the year 1776 when Japanese author Akinari Ueda first published his collection of nine supernatural tales under the title “Ugetsu Monogatari” or literally translated, “Tales of the Rain and Moon”. The themes and stories were based on older Chinese folktales originating from the Ming Dynasty, with changes to fit the Japanese culture and time period. Nearly 150 years later with the advent of cinema, literary works were frequently adapted to film such as “The 47 Ronin” - the most frequently adapted story in Japanese cinema, television, and theater. Strangely, the stories from “Ugetsu Monogatari” were not even though the stories were quite well known even 150 years after publication. The first known adaptation was 1921’s “Jasei no in” based on the second story of the book of the same title, directed by Hollywood born Japanese filmmaker Thomas Kurihara. The film is sadly lost.

In 1952, famed filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi signed a new long term contract with the Daiei motion picture company. The 55 year old director had worked consistently since the silent era, having a long run at Nikkatsu studios in the 20s, Shochiku studios in the 30s and 40s, while making a few other films out of contract at other studios during his lengthy career. With high respect from the industry, critics, and the public with popular films, Mizoguchi felt he was losing some stature due to the rising ranks of the younger filmmakers - specifically Akira Kurosawa, who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the US Academy Award for 1950’s “Rashomon”. Mizoguchi may have been “older” but that gave him prestige and creative freedom at Daiei, who also produced “Rashomon” three years prior. The sights were set on adapting stories from “Ugetsu Monogatari” as a feature film. While the title shares the name with the book, the screenplay was quite different from the collection of stories.

The film centers around two families and their ordeal during the Sengoku period. Genjuro (played by Masayuki Mori) is a potter along with his wife Miyagi (played by Kinuyo Tanaka) and their young son Genichi (played by Ichisaburo Sawamura). They work hard together to make pots to sell in town, and they are happy with the profits that are coming in, even if the work is tough. Tobei (played by Sakae Ozawa) is Genjuro’s younger brother who is married to Ohama (played by Mitsuko Mito). Tobei is a dreamer rather than a realist. With the impending war his dream is to become a noble samurai to find wealth and higher status than working hard. When the war comes toward their village and they are forced away from their homes, the hardship strikes hard for everyone.

Genjuro’s storyline is a mix of two stories from the “Ugestu Monogatari” book - “Jasei no in” (or “Lust of the White Serpent”) and “Asaji ga yado” (or “House Amid the Thickets”), and both stories are supernatural tales. “Jasei no in” is about a man that unknowingly falls in love with a supernatural being and “Asajiga yado” is about a man who returns home after a long period of time to discover that his wife that greeted him and spent time with that night had been dead for many years. Tobei’s story actually does not involve anything supernatural, and is not part of any structure from the original book. Guy de Maupassant's “Décoré!” was the base - about a man who becomes a high ranking soldier but all because his wife was unknowingly having an affair with a higher ranking official. While there are differences from the source material, the film is clearly based on these three stories and not a carbon copy. In Genjuro’s story, he is very slowly seduced by the phantom spirit of Lady Wakasa (played by Machiko Kyo) like in a state of a trance-like dream. When he awakens he is still in a state of euphoria, unable to believe what monks or samurai in town say about the mansion he says he spent the night at. As for Tobei’s story, he is given the status of a noble samurai by witnessing a beheading of a warlord, which then he kills the executioner and steals the head to bring to a rival general saying that he was the one that killed the warlord. While it could not be proven that he was the one that killed the warlord it was clear that he had brought the head and was therefore entitled to the status of a samurai.

While the men in the story are swayed by lust and dreams, it is the women of the film that suffer the most. Miyagi having to run away and try to survive with the young son on her back is a harsh reality of war, and the scene of the hungry samurai that attack her and her son for food is a disturbing scene to watch. Not only that, but also taking a beating is Ohama - who is raped by a group of rogue samurai in a temple no less, where she takes the shame of having a husband leave her and having an unclean body into becoming a prostitute to make ends meet. The stories of the women are not at the forefront as they have less screentime but show the difficulties endured for the civilians in wartime. Considering that the film was made less than 10 years after the end of World War II, the Japanese public could relate all too well with the hardships endured by the female characters while also seeing the dreams that the male characters had to preoccupy the reality.

“Ugetsu” was shot by famed cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa who also previously shot “Rashomon” a few years prior. Mizoguchi was very specific in how the camera would be used - with crane shots, moving shots, extremely long takes, and depth to the frame. There are many shots that linger for an incredibly long time including the aforementioned scene with Miyagi and the hungry samurai, and also the masterful long take when Genjuro returns home. As for depth, there are many scenes in which the main characters make up the bottom half of the foreground while the top half is reserved for the background where the audience is able to see tiny people in very specific positions and actions. It beautifully and fully composed in cinematography and is yet another highlight in Miyagawa’s work as well as Mizoguchi’s. As for music, Fumio Hayasaka was not given much direction from Mizoguchi and was given creative control. Using traditional Japanese instruments and melodies, the score is very reminiscent of his previous work on “Rashomon”. The connections to “Rashomon” do not stop there - As the actors Masayuki Mori and Machiko Kyo played the husband and wife duo in the 1950 film and are reunited in “Ugestu” as the forbidden lovers. If Mizoguchi was trying to make a film to seem like another “Rashomon” he did so by attracting most of the talent from those works - sans the original director and the breakout star Toshiro Mifune.

“Ugetsu” was released in Japan on March 26th, 1953 and received high critical praise from critics. Daiei submitted the film for the Venice Film Festival in August of 1953 hoping for another major prize like “Rashomon”, and while it did win the top prize of the festival that year, it was NOT the Golden Lion but the Silver Lion Award. Unfortunately the jury could not decide on a single film for the Golden Lion and so “Ugetsu” shared the Silver Lion with five other films that year - “Thérèse Raquin”, “Moulin Rouge”, “I Vitelloni”, “Little Fugitive”, and “Sadko” - yes, the same film that was featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000. While it was immediately hailed as a classic and placed Mizoguchi higher on the director pantheon especially with international critics, the director himself was not pleased with the outcome of the film. He felt that the film could have much been improved, was not happy with the slightly revised more optimistic ending, and was also not satisfied with the “tie” result at the Venice Film Festival. With more than 90 films to his credit at the time it was released, Mizoguchi would continue to make 7 more films in a 3 year span until his death in 1956 at the age of 58. Even if the director was not completely pleased, the film continues to rank as one of the best and most important Japanese films ever made and is Mizoguchi’s most widely known and widely seen film worldwide. Like the spirits in the film, there are just some things that never die.

Note this is a region ALL PAL DVD which can be played on all DVD and Blu-ray players worldwide with PAL playback capability.

Video

Umbrella Entertainment presents the film in the non-anamorphic 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio in the PAL format. Recently the film was restored in 4K and screened theatrically but this DVD does not come from the 4K restoration but an older high definition master. The transfer is a disappointing one. The black and white image has its minor specs and dust throughout the film, and scratches like rain especially at the beginning and end of film reels - which is consistent with previous DVD and Blu-ray editions released such as the Criterion DVD and the Eureka Blu-ray and DVD, so the transfer is from the same master. But what differs from those US and UK releases and the Australian release is the black and white contrast. The Australian transfer has blown out whites and deep blacks with a very thin grey scale in between. Faces and places lose details in dark places and in bright places which really takes out the beauty from the original film.

The film starts with the image of the Silver Lion Award from Venice which was added to the theatrical prints following the festival, and is uncut with the runtime of 92:35, with PAL speed up.

Audio

Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 mono
The original mono track is preserved here and fares a little better than the video but is not perfect. Dialogue is clear and music sounds fine, but considering the limitations of how the film was recorded at the time. There is still some background hiss, tinny sounding portions, and overall flatness to the track. There are no large cracks or audio dropouts, though there is one scene when Lady Wakasa says something to Genjuro but the sentence is cutoff in midsentence while her mouth still moves. This was in every version of the film I have ever seen and whether it is something missing from the master materials or was intentional by the director I cannot be certain. But I am certain that this was not a hiccup on Umbrella’s part.

There are optional English subtitles for the film in a white font. The subtitles are fine but I’m afraid are not the best. There were multiple occasions that the subtitles did not accurately translate what the actors said. For example, when Tobei asks the merchant “How much?”, the merchant counts up the price and says basically “One coin”. But on this DVD the merchant is subtitled as saying “You look great” which is clearly wrong. There are also many occasions that are not subtitled well. The scene in which Genjuro returns home, he frequently calls out for “Miyagi!” and says ”I’m late! I’m so sorry!” when he finally sees her. On the DVD the subtitles are completely missing, and the few lines that follow are slightly off - the dialogue is spoken but the subtitles come one sentence too late. Like when Genjuro asks for his son and Miyagi tells him that their son is “In bed”, but the subtitle comes when the next line is said when he calls his son’s name. So when Genjuro says “Genichi!” in the audio, the subtitle reads “In bed”. The subtitle timing gets corrected soonafter, but it seems the proofreader was not the best spotchecker on accuracy. The US and UK DVD/Blu-ray releases did not have this issue and they did also have differing translations done. Not only with timing and missing portions, but there were some spelling errors as well, with one instance of the word “Destroyed” being spelled “Destroed”.

Extras

There are no extras offered, not even a menu for the disc. Once the disc is played the film starts. Once the film ends, the disc stops. Subtitles can be turned on and off via remote only. Considering that the US, UK, and French DVDs available have extensive differing extras, it’s a shame that the Australian release gets a no-extras DVD release, and also no Blu-ray release. Currently the UK is the only country to release the film on Blu-ray as part of the “Late Mizoguchi” 8-film collection, while Japan will release the film on Blu-ray with the new 4K restoration transfer.

Packaging

Note that the packaging states “Region 4” but this is in fact a region ALL disc.

Overall

“Ugetsu” is one of the most important and best films in Japanese cinema and the most well received and well known out of director Kenji Mizoguchi’s filmography of nearly 100 films. It is unfortunate that the Australian Umbrella Entertainment release has no extras and weak audio/video but the film is definitely a must see.

The Film: A Video: C Audio: C Overall: C

 


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