Mizoguchi's samurai ghost story still chills.


The headstrong heroes of Ugetsu live in a man’s world, a war-torn province in 16th-century Japan where women don’t so much as show their faces in the marketplace lest they be subjected to the violence of the depraved samurai roving through their village. For all the men’s reckless peacocking, though, it’s the women who hold all the cards in Kenji Mizoguchi’s moral schema, a supernatural universe delicately overlaid on top of the real setting he so painstakingly recreates.  

A landmark in Japanese cinema, and likely the only ghost story that’s just as adept at depicting cultural customs as it is at creating a menacing ambience, Mizoguchi’s masterpiece is ostensibly about the tragic downfall of its pair of male leads: Genjurō (Masayuki Mori), a peasant who dreams of being a respectable potter, and Tōbei (Eitaro Ozawa), a layabout who wishes he was a samurai. Yet Mizoguchi’s most powerful grace note lies in his b-plot, the alternate trajectory followed by the men’s downtrodden wives, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito, terrific) and Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), as well as the melancholy Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō), the unmarried and undead daughter of a defeated warlord, a spirit come back to earth for a last hurrah with one lucky eligible bachelor.

Genjurō doesn’t quite fit that bill, but he’s willing to play along. His tryst with the ghostly noblewoman is a sobering retelling of The Odyssey, with Ohama suffering enough back home for a dozen Penelopes. There’s something elemental about Genjurō’s comeuppance, but Mizoguchi impresses more with his effortless visual storytelling than with his ethical reckoning, as compelling as it is. Martin Scorsese has routinely put the film on his ballot for Sight & Sound’s top-ten list, and you can see why: it’s hypnotic tracking shots are still the gold standard 60 years after its release.