Ugetsu Monogatari
d. Kenji Mizoguchi / Japan / 1953 / 94 mins
Viewed at: A3.03 @ UEA (Norwich, UK)

One of the real pleasures of cinema (and, indeed, any creative medium) is that it provides the viewer/consumer with the constant ability to discover something ‘new’. As a largely collaborative art-form, cinema consistently throws up immediately consumable revelations, from minor details like a unique approach to framing a particular shot, to major upheavals in the stylistic approach to characterisation or narrative construction or visual aesthetic.

There’s nothing particularly new (or revelatory, even) about Kenji Mizoguchi today. He is, after all, a Japanese filmmaker whose career spanned twenty-something years, a contemporary of Ozu and early Kurosawa. He can hardly be described as unheralded and is rightly considered by many to be a master of the cinematic arts. And yet, he too provides unfamiliar audiences with the ability to discover something ‘new’ for themselves.

Regardless of whether scholars and critics pore over a directors films (and in the case of Mizoguchi, they do), or whether copious written volumes have been dedicated to his life and work (they have), or whether his films are readily available on DVD (they are, somewhat), no amount of availability or prior scholarly knowledge can account for these first experiences of ‘new’ cinematic revelations.

A little over half-way through Ugetsu, Mizoguchi lets his camera wander unabated through a series of staged vignettes involving Genjuro (one of the films’ central characters) and Lady Wakasa, the ghostly figure under whose charms he has fallen.

Aided by the incomparable work of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, this absolutely seamless sequence begins in the Wasaka Manor, panning into a dissolve which reveals an evening shot of the two of them in a bath. Having worked through this scene, the camera tracks away again, arriving – via a faultless trick-shot – in the midst of a daytime scene in an open field, where the couple share a picnic and cavort around Mizoguchi’s set. [I’m unable to embed the sequence here, but it can be viewed within a longer clip from Ugetsu on YouTube – the link should take you straight to the sequence, which begins at 6:17.]

Here, the fluidity of Miyagawa’s camerawork encapsulates the mood of Ugetsu as simply and succinctly as it does throughout, bringing to life the immutable emotion of Mizoguchi’s timeless tale of haunted men and hunting women, all in the style of a emakimono, or medieval Japanese scroll painting.

The film may be over fifty years old, but sequences like this remain a complete revelation for me. And whilst I find it difficult to describe exactly what that revelation entails, there is no denying that Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is a film which has delivered me, once again, to that finite pleasure of discovering something ‘new’.

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