Ugetsu (1953)

Ugetsu (1953), directed by Kenji Mizoguchi.

It doesn't seem like a ghost story at first. As the tale unfolds, we hear ominous slow drumbeats in the distance, like the footsteps of an approaching doom.

Peasant life in wartime: armies need food and conscript labor. Soldiers do whatever damage they want, women are defenseless against them and no one stops them. After the battle the losers are staggering with starvation and the brutality is even worse.

One farmer has a pottery business on the side and likes the wartime prices. His brother -- something of a fool -- dreams of being a soldier. They travel and both have success of a sort, but their wives left behind pay the price.

Their stories become more like fables and the supernatural appears. Says an eerie noblewoman to the simple peasant she is seducing: "You think I'm an enchantress, don't you?" The truth is worse. Beware when all your fantasies are fulfilled.

An image that will stay with me for a long time: the ghost wife sitting up and doing chores while her husband sleeps.

As is often the case with Japanese costume films, I feel like I have a window into a storybook, or have moved inside one myself.

Criterion DVD with an expert commentary track on the production and people involved. It's very informative, although sometimes I thought I'd wandered into the mock commentary for Blood Simple (1984). Film scholars sometimes drift into spaces meaningful only to themselves.

He emphasizes Mizoguchi's perfectionism, and proposes that costume pictures dominate this period because they exported well. If you wanted an international film prize, you made stories of medieval times, not contemporary Japan. That's not exactly true, is it?

Other notes:

Quite a lot of damage on the print. I see that a region B "Masters of Cinema" Blu-ray is available in the UK, but from the DVDBeaver screen shots it doesn't seem to have a marked improvement in image quality.