Blu-ray Review: Criterion's UGETSU Is Scorsese Approved

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Blu-ray Review: Criterion's UGETSU Is Scorsese Approved

There's not a whole lot about this titan of classic Japanese cinema that can be further illuminated upon, so I'll keep things simple. The Criterion Collection's relatively new Blu-ray release of Ugetsu is stunning. The new 4K restoration was supervised personally by Martin Scorsese and Miyajima Masahiro, and this 1953 masterwork comes home in a pristine package -- from the picture and sound to the booklet presentation. In short, it's a lovely thing to behold.

Ugetsu concerns the story of two couples during the start of civil war in Japan during the sixteenth century. Farmer/potter Genjurô makes a fortune selling his artisan pottery in Nagahama, with help from neighbor Tobei, who wants to become a samurai, more than anything.

Tobei can't afford to buy armor, swords, and spears, however, and has become a laugh track to traveling samurai, who make fun of his begging ways. As Genjurô and Tobei work to get rich from pottery, their wives Miyage and Ohama are fearful about Shibata's approaching army -- with good cause. Their husbands won't hear of it, however, with getting rich quick the only thing on their minds -- no matter the cost. 

Like a morality play or fairy tale, Ugetsu serves as a warning to those whose ambitions exceed their station. As the couples cross Lake Biwa, another boat drifts across the placid water, containing a dying man. Taken as a bad omen, the men leave Miyage and son ashore, fearful of danger. Ohama refuses to leave Tobei.

In short, the pottery is sold and makes the men a good deal of money, but at what cost? Tobei runs away with his share through the market and purchases a samurai's armor and weapons as Ohama looks for him -- and is caught by a roaming band of thugs and (thankfully offscreen) gang raped and therefore, dishonored.

Eventually, Tobei ends up separating a general's head from his body in a strange, suicidal moment for the warrior, and Tobei becomes a highly decorated samurai, even if he hasn't really earned it. As he returns home with his men, they decide to stop at a tavern/brothel of sorts, where Tobei discovers his lost wife Ohama working as a prostitute. The sorrow is palpable.

Genjurô becomes entranced by Lady Wakasa and her servant, neither of who are of this world any longer. He spends a good time with them, even marrying Lady Wakasa and froliking with her in a lover's paradise, completely forgetting his family.

Meanwhile, we see Miyage fending off another band of roving solidiers who steal her child's food, and spear her for the crime of not handing it over immediately. Some time later, Genjurô discovers that his new wife, Lady Wakasa, is a ghost, feared by locals. He manages to have her and her servant exorcised, and flees home to Miyage. His discovery of her in their old home is one of the legendary long takes for which the team of Mizoguchi and Kazu Miyagawa were known.

The script for Ugetsu was inspired by three short stories; one from Guy de Maupassant ("How He Got the Legion of Honor"), and two from Akinari Ueda ("The House in the Thicket" and "The Serpent's Lust"). These stories are included in the deluxe booklet that comes with the Blu-ray package (the DVD version does NOT included them), and they're fantastic. I wish I had read them before watching the film, but either way, they provide wonderful context for the world of Ugetsu and my experience was enriched by their inclusion.

If you have never seen this film, of if you want to rewatch a piece of cinematic world history, check out the Ugetsu Lake Biwa scene below. Criterion's new release is highly recommended.

Special disc featues:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary by critic, filmmaker, and festival programmer Tony Rayns
  • Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director, a 1975 documentary by Kaneto Shindo
  • Two Worlds Intertwined, a 2005 appreciation of Ugetsu by Masahiro Shinoda
  • Process and Production, a 2005 interview with Tokuzo Tanaka, first assistant director on Ugetsu
  • Interview from 1992 with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa
  • Trailers
  • An essay by film critic Phillip Lopate (Blu-ray and DVD) and three short stories that influenced Mizoguchi in making the film (Blu-ray only)
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CriterionKenji MizoguchiMartin ScorseseMasahiro MiyajimaUgetsu

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