Some years ago I suggested a foreign film to a friend. Her response was no with the comment, “I don’t read my movies.” Since then, I have come across a number of people who respond the same way. How sad.
There are so many great movies they miss by directors such as Fellini and Bergman, Louis Malle and Francois Truffaut, Kurosawa and Roberto Rossellini. They miss “Cinema Paradiso” and “Ikiru”, “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring”, “Audition” and the Swedish trilogy of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. And, of course, Kenji Mizoguchi’s great film “Ugetsu”.
Like all great films, “Ugetsu” (1953) is not just one story, but several stories layered upon one another. It is the story of how an artist, Genjuro, must suffer in order to become a true master of his art. It is the story of ambition. Genjuro wants to get rich by selling more and more pottery, no matter the risk to himself or his family. His neighbor, Tobee, wants foolishly to be a samurai. It is a ghost story. And a story of love and forgiveness.
“Ugetsu” is a particular appropriate film for an understanding of the refugees fleeing Ukraine, North African and the Middle East. Families fleeing war because they don’t know whether they will be blown up, beheaded, tortured, gassed or robbed, the women definitely raped. All they want is to live in peace and raise their families.
“Ugetsu” takes place in a civil-war-torn sixteenth century Japan. One day one army is on top. The next day, another army. The only thing these armies have in common is the soldiers are lawless, plundering the pleasants, raping their women, and forcing the men into hard labor gangs.
Within a little over an hour and a half, Kenji Mizoguchic has created an epic film, and yet a very human one, that would take another director three plus hours.
One final thought. It amazes me the number of great films that created shortly after World War II. Many of the directors came from two former enemies of the Allies, Italy and Japan, and working with almost no resources. Films such as “Open City”, “The Bicycle Thief”, “Rashomon”, and “Ugetsu”. It had to be a heady time for the freedom those directors finally had.