1953, Movies

Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi)

This is another Japanese film (another downer) from decades ago that is ranked by some among the best ten films of all time. I don’t really know how you narrow down literally millions of movies to 10 but I guess some people feel they can. The issue with so many of these lists which include films like this is that, as time passes, it gets harder and harder to appreciate these films. This one, for instance, contains supernatural elements which are not rendered on screen in any conventional way like we would do now. The passage of time and the improvement in film effects makes it harder to take the old version seriously.

The usual caveats apply to this film as do to such old Japanese films. However in this case the acting is less histrionic than it often is. It’s actually pretty damned measured for a Japanese film from the 1950s, which feels like some kind of miracle. In that sense it feels slightly more modern than some other Japanese films I’ve seen from this period, as less shouting is definitely a plus.

But there are two things to really note, here. One is the incredible camerawork: the camera moves constantly though the takes are often quite long. It’s clearly the work of a virtuoso and it’s the kind of thing I would have absolutely lost my shit over say 10 years ago. Now I just appreciate it but it does make for a really compelling watch if you care about that kind of thing.

The other thing, typical of Japanese films of the era, is the frankness with which it deals with the bad things in life. A woman is raped and becomes a prostitute and the film actually includes this. Touch of Evil included a scene a year later and became infamous. Here it just one instance of a somewhat endless parade of suffering. (Though far less than in some of these films.)

I have real trouble with the believability of the ghost stuff. But I am not sure how of that is on the film, how much of that is on the passage of time, or how of it is on cultural differences. I am used to ghosts being incorporeal in film, at least until relatively recently. But it’s possible that the Japanese tradition of ghosts is different. Also films, handle ghosts better now, with various ways of indicating to the audience (but not the actor) that there’s a ghost.

But we must view these films in the context in which they are made. And this one is artistically pretty damn impressive in addition to having that typical Japanese frankness about suffering and the nature of human folly that is nearly entirely absent from western cinema in the 1950s.

I didn’t love this movie, nor do I think it is one of the ten greatest films. But it is an impressive artistic accomplishment for the era and I can imagine being stunned by it if I was a western filmgoer seeing it in 1953.


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