It seems more than a little pretentious for some country bumpkin from the backwoods of Wiltshire to try and review two films by the revered Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, where so many respected film historians have already trod. David Thomson the acclaimed film writer thought "Ugetsu Monogatari" to be one of the finest films ever made. Barry Norman, who needs no introduction, didn't place it in his top 100 films of all time. The film made in black and white in 1953 was a silver lion winner at the Venice film festival that year. Mizoguchi's films which were long unavailable in the west are now more accessible, and this double DVD is a very good introduction. Be warned that Mizoguchi's work is much more Japanese in character than Akira Kurosawa's more western influenced films, and therefore require more patience. But this patience can be rewarded.
"Ugetsu" is set in 16th century Japan in villages on Lake Biwa in Omi province. We follow the lives of two couples who struggle during a difficult time of civil war, where as always the civilian populace suffers the most. One man dreams of becoming a samurai whilst the other dreams of making his fortune. Both are seduced by their dreams and the worship of false idols. They fail to see the riches that are close to them. Like all the great films it has something to say! The choices we make in life and human transience. Mizoguchi directs proceedings like a master puppeteer carefully orchestrating scenes, the strings held together by his dream like roving camera, a camera that constantly involves the viewer in intimate scenes. The final scenes are particularly memorable.
"Oyu Sama" or "Miss Oyu", another film made in black and white, also uses these same techniques in a film of manners and forbidden love. In a perverse situation, a man falls in love with the widowed sister of his future wife. The widow can only marry with the permission of her dead husbands family, and so in a desperate act to keep the couple closer together the sister selflessly marries the man in a purely platonic relationship. The story unfolds in a carefully mannered and formalized fashion, with all parties trying to adhere to social conventions whilst suppressing their inner feelings. Such a subject could only be broached in post war Japan during the more relaxed censorship under American occupation. The film would never have been made before the war. Based on a novel by the famous Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, it is unusually frank about the taboo subject of sex for its time. The film is as beautifully structured as an immaculately kept Kyoto garden, where the film is incidentally set. This gives it a uniquely Japanese character and lends it great charm. There are many scenes shot in garden settings. The film has an introduction from the respected film critic Tony Rayns who talks about Mizoguchi's dissatisfaction with the film over matters of miscasting and issues with the Daiei studio. He also covers other interesting facts which make it well worth watching.
If you have not watched a Mizoguchi film then this is a good place to start. Many people, even today, tend to associate Japanese cinema with Akira Kurosawa and look no further, but that would be to miss out on many other fine offerings. Anyone who appreciates sublime camera work will love these films which truly show the hallmark of a master