After tackling the AFI's top 100 list, I am now in the process of viewing the movies from the more pretentious lists, like the Village Voice. Ugestu is a film that constantly finds itself high on these lists, and deservedly so. Unlike Kurosawa, Mizoguchi did not find international acclaim until late in his career with Ugestu (he died in 1956).
Ugetsu has all the hallmarks of a great film. The cinematography is exquisite and graceful; his extremely long takes and static camera allow us to absorb the rich details of his very deliberate compositions. It has been a long time since I have seen a film as beautiful as this one (I am quite ignorant of Mizoguchi, but I would not be surprised if Zhang Yimou listed him as one of his major influences). Moreover, the story is rather simple, and yet, I know this film is smarter than me.
The plot centers on two potters and their wives as they struggle to make ends meet during a 16th century Japanese civil war. Each potter has aspirations of glory and power. One wishes to be a feared samurai warrior, the other, a wealthy businessman appreciated for his craft. Both prosper during the war and their dreams come to fruition. But like the wishes granted by the monkey's paw, their good fortune is not free of incredible sacrifices. I shall refrain from discussing such sacrifices, lest I spoil the film. But I will say that it involves rather supernatural events (by the way, I do find it curious how often ghosts and the supernatural play a significant role in Japanese cinema-there has to be a book out there tracing the symbolic role of the specter in Japanese culture).
Like most great films, Ugestu was intended for a post-war Japanese audience, so a great deal of subtext is lost on me. Regardless, it is great investment of 90 minutes--I know I am now a better person for having seen it. Criterion, as usual, does a bang-up job with the transfer.
I also watched Finding Nemo tonight...Likewise a film well worth seeing.