I need to start this off with a confession. Old, black and white movies are hard for me sometimes. It’s not the kind of admission an aspiring film enthusiast should publish online, but there it is.
I think it’s because most films of that era are staged with wide shots, have theater-like acting, and there isn’t a lot to catch the eye (since they are in black and white).
I have found, that the more I force myself to sit through them, the more I end up enjoying/ appreciating them. Older films are more complex in narrative than you would initially think, generally assume the audience to be more intelligent, and usually have fully drawn characters. Most movies today skimp on those points (they don’t make them like they used to).
I have no experience or knowledge of Japanese cinema. I have very limited experience with Asian cinema as a whole, just a few Chinese war films and Korean horror flicks under my belt. So I really had no idea what to expect from this movie. I was pleasantly surprised.
I had to get over my bias against the staging and acting to get into the story, but once I did, I found it to be a very complex story with a lot to say. It is a tale about morality, almost like a parable, where two men basically abandon their families in war time to chase after their own greed and glory, and all the consequences the two families reap because of their actions.
And did I mention there are ghosts involved? Yeah, couple that with Samurais and what’s not to like here?
In the age of anti-heroes and superheroes, it’s refreshing to revisit a time where actions had clear moral implications for the characters, where they know what they did wrong and are forced to come to terms with their choices. And the stakes matter. There is not any grey territory in this film.
After watching, I also read that many see the film as a response to the pro-war propaganda of early 1940’s Japanese cinema. This very director (Kenji Mizoguchi) directed the pro-war propaganda film The 47 Ronin in 1941. This movie is definitely anti-war. The country is torn apart by the war, and by men chasing dreams instead of the family they have right in front of them.
This movie is well written (as far as I can tell from subtitles). Once you get past the stagey-ness of the acting, the performances start to grow on you. Especially Kinuyo Tanaka as Miyagi and Masayuki Mori as Genjurô. They get the film’s most compelling scenes. And, although it is in black and white, the cinematography is compelling through-out. There are some beautiful images in the film, and the last shot invokes just the right amount of grief with hope. It’s beautiful.
The experience had me questioning why movies are not made this way anymore.
I understand that as camera technology has gotten better, and with it our ability to tell stories. We use close ups now instead wide shots (a way to really focus on characters instead of setting), which then requires much more editing. You have to cut between talking characters and wide shots so we, the audience, know what is going on.
Those cuts help tell a story, either by being slow and methodical, or fast to build tension and suspense. Good tools that seem to be overused in most films now, where a single frame lasts for less than 5 seconds and our brains are working to keep up.
We don’t have a chance to sit in a story and let a scene breathe, at least not in most commercial films. A film being slow is usually a criticism instead of a reason to enjoy it. But, the films that typically sit with us for decades, like the ones on this list, are methodically built. They give you time with the story and the characters and aren’t quick to cut away from a scene just because it’s gone on awhile.
Ugetsu is a story like that. It takes it some time to get where it’s going, but let that be a compliment instead of a deterrent. I, for one, want more stories like that coming to a theater near me.