Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) a film by Kenji Mizoguchi

I rarely know if I’ve seen a great film, one that speaks to me personally, either during or soon after watching it.  Often it takes time for a good film to sink in, gradually the desire to watch it again will indicate that it is something special.

Often the films that blow me away while I’m watching them are fantastic in that moment but I don’t tend to go out of my way to watch them again – a perfect example being American Beauty.  I saw American Beauty at the cinema when it was originally released and thought it was one of the greatest films I’d ever seen, and yes it was a great film, but for some reason I have not been desperate to see it again.

Of course there are some films which survive the initial wow factor – The Virgin Suicides, Donnie Darko, Rushmore to name a few – but they are the exception.  Into The Wild was the first film where I realised that my appreciation can sometimes take a while to filter through.  I went out of my way to see Into The Wild at a cinema (it had a very limited release) – I wanted to see it at the cinema because I’d read the book when it was first published and loved it, but also because it did well at Sundance and I thought the epic scope of both the story and the scenery needed a larger screen.  I really enjoyed the film, I thought it a little long but I was glad I saw it at the cinema.  I didn’t think I’d particularly want to see it again – I was wrong.  The film kept resurfacing in my mind, weeks and months later, until I had to see it again to decide if it was as good as I came to think it was.  I bought the DVD (and now I’ve got the Blu-ray).  It is a stunning film, a great interpretation of the book and the spirit of Chris McCandless, and a perfect example of how a film can affect you deeply without you initially realising it.

Ugetsu Monogarari

That is how I came to Ugetsu Monogatari the second time.  I was given the disc for Christmas, I saw it and thought it was pretty good (which is high praise coming from me!), then over the next couple of months scenes kept popping back into my mind.  I saw it again yesterday and I again thought it pretty good.  I noticed more and and my appreciation of the the film went up but it did not go through the roof as a similar second screening of Murnau’s Sunrise had done a few years ago.  I think that maybe I should have left it a little longer before seeing it again, or maybe I am still getting used to the cultural differences inherent in a film set in 17th century Japan, which of course were not present in the 20th century America of Sunrise.

The film is about how some men desire what they do not have until it becomes an obsession that they cannot escape.  This ultimately blinds them to the non-monetary wealth they already possess and eventually, through the pursuit of of their obsessions, lose.

It is based around two peasant farming couples who live simple lives – the women are level headed but the men are dreamers.  One wants money by selling his pottery, the other wants fame and power by becoming a Samurai.  They both get what they want yet lose their sense of reality on the way.  Their wives are swept aside in the rush for fame and fortune and it is only when the men are confronted with the fate of their wives that they realise how vain and worthless their obsessions were.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)The way the film progresses is extremely naturalistic – it starts off with both couples working together, then gradually each individual diverges into their own story.  For instance, we follow one of the wives as she searches for her husband through the market, he loses her and buys the armour he needs to become a Samurai, but we then follow her out into the grasses and her fateful story begins.  The editing is miraculous, the four stories are given unequal amounts of time throughout the film, but they come and go without ever feeling forced.

As an antidote to the popular miss-conception that Japanese films are all about Godzilla and extreme horror, this film has an eloquence and artistry to match any other classic movie.

Although I didn’t get the overwhelming feeling of greatness that I have experienced with a number of other films, it is quite evidently a truly great film.  The flowing camera and long takes, the heart rending moments and visual elegance certainly make it worth repeated viewings and was for me a great introduction to Japanese cinema.

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