Along with Rashomon (1950), 'Ugetsu...' is one of the films that put Japanese cinema on the international map, winning prizes at international film festivals (the Silver Lion at Venice). Of course Japanese national cinema was as old as cinema itself globally but this was the first time in which the West had taken an interest in Japanese cinema. Mizoguchi himself had been making films for thirty years by the time he'd made 'Ugetsu...' and even his first widely considered masterpiece 'Tale of the Last Chrysanthemums' (1939) predates this film by some fourteen years. This era in Japanese cinema is arguably its finest - Kurosawa, Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi (the last three had all started their careers in the silent era and had spent numerous decades making films) were all at their peak, with their films arguably united by a humanist agenda. Mizoguchi's film examines themes such as human weakness and moral decline, which was neither new to him nor his contemporaries - what is perhaps unique to Mizoguchi (though Naruse's films often do this) is consider the weakness of men and the inevitable consequence of the physical and emotional damage done to women.
Set in a divided Japan in the 16th century - a world of mystery and illusion, but also violence and lawlessness, warlords vied for domination. In this context, we are introduced to the film's two male protagonists, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa). These two mens are peasant potters with families but not happy with their lot in life. Genjuro believes his talents are capable of achieving great wealth, whereas Tobei dreams of becoming a samurai. Tobei's wife tells him "know your place or you'll regret it", whilst Genjuro's wife also suggests caution. Whilst Tobei is clearly a figure to be laughed at, as the samurai do at his futile dreaming, it's perhaps more Genjuro whose ambitions are potentially more dangerous, even though he's presented to us as a clearly talented and level-headed father and husband who wants the best for his family. Claiming there's nothing but pain and despair in poverty, he's certain he'll make a fine profit in time even though the permanent state of war makes life precarious. Indeed, once the village is looted by bandits, Genjuro refuses to flee thinking he'll lose everything, even though he's placing the life of him and his family in danger.
Both families have to start afresh and it's the ambition of both men which makes them abandon their families to make good on their ambition. Genjuro sends his wife to safety, promising to return once he has made enough wealth, but Tobei leaves his wife as soon as he gets the chance, fed up at her constant discouraging of him samurai dreams. The immediate effects of this are clear - Tobei's wife is raped by soldiers and Genjuro's wife is murdered for not handing over the food she possessed for her son. At the same time, both men achieve their dreams, reinforcing the idea that has been used by Mizoguchi before, especially in 'Tale of the Late Chrysanthemums' that a man's success is achieved at the expense of women.
The ghostly and ethereal aspect of the journey the men took from their home villages to where they are now based, on a misty river passing a man on the way who claimed he wasn't from a ghost ship, seemed innocuous at the time, but now takes on a more ominous dimension. Genjuro's talents are appreciated by Lady Wasaka (Machiko Kyo), the only surviving member of a noble family. Drunk on this appreciation, he begins a torrid affair with her, but there are enough clues even before Genjuro's meeting with a priest to suggest that all is not right here. Our awareness of this is apparent far sooner than for Genjuro, suggesting that he's truly and deliriously blinded by his ambitions. Despite coming across as a devoted father and husband before, when it comes to choosing between them and his dreams, he'll choose the latter every time, completely forgetting about his family because he's achieved the success he always yearned for. Tobei on the other hand is forced to confront his misdeeds, meeting his wife once more, only now she is a prostitute, forever ruined by his abandonment of her. As I said before, by this point our impressions of the two men have completely turned on their head from the opening scenes. Genjuro, once level headed has caused the greatest hurt and pain from chasing his dreams rather than Tobei, whom we had written off as feckless and prime for ridicule. It's absolutely brilliant of Mizoguchi to completely invert the circumstances of these two men.
A superb parable about greed and ambition, 'Ugetsu...' also acts as a startling commentary on gender relationships. The actions of the men in trying to achieve success has important consequences for their wives and the men are completely oblivious to their suffering. Even when Genjuro realises the truth about Lady Wasaka and refuses to go with her "to her world", she replies "A man may not care but a woman does", suggesting that the cruelty of men is entirely selfish with no thought whatsoever to the emotional effects of this. Thematically, it's a truly intelligent and perceptive film. Although Mizoguchi opens with a typical "scrolling shot" with the camera panning from right to left, for most of the film, Mizoguchi relies on long takes with a largely static camera, similar to his peers, Ozu and Naruse. Technical gimmicks aren't required when you have a film so confidently directed and so certain of its themes and significance. 'Ugetsu...' makes a case as the greatest Japanese film of all time and it's certainly no surprise that it ranks so highly on critics' lists. 5/5