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DVD Pick: "Ugetsu"

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I remember seeing the title "Ugetsu monogatari" (1953) on various lists of great films for years before an opportunity arose for me to catch it at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I recall going to that screening with high expectations and not being disappointed at all. Now I am thrilled to own the Criterion Collection two-disc DVD set containing that movie under the shorter title "Ugetsu."

The film is set in Japan during the 16th century, and I think what makes the movie so remarkable is its otherworldly feeling. The backdrop is a civil war between rival warrior clans, but we aren't shown any of the combat; instead we follow peasants who are caught up in the general unrest. I would characterize "Ugetsu" as a work of visual poetry.

The principal character is Genjuro, a peasant farmer who lives in a hamlet with his devoted wife and their child. Seeking to increase his income, he travels to a big town to sell pottery he has made. There he gets into a bizarre relationship with a noblewoman.

While Genjuro's tale is what I would call Storyline A, the movie is enriched by a Storyline B. This is about Tobei and his wife, who are Genjuro's next-door-neighbors in the hamlet. Craving military glory, Tobei resorts to ignominious behavior in his pursuit of it.

Things don't go well for any of the main characters in "Ugetsu," and I believe that surely the film should be taken as a fable. It seems to me worth noting that it's the wives who suffer most when their husbands are seduced by wealth and glory. However, I see the movie as being suffused with Buddhist notions: existence is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire, everything is transient. To me, the film's serene ending suggests transcendence. But I am skeptical that the movie's meaning can be fully captured by any one simple interpretation.

Genjuro's story in the film is inspired by two of the nine short stories in Akinari Ueda's 1776 book "Ugetsu monogatari," the title of which has traditionally been rendered into English as "Tales of Moonlight and Rain." Tobei's story in the movie is inspired by a short story by Guy de Maupassant. Packaged with the DVD set is a 72-page booklet that contains English translations of all three of these short stories.

Older write-ups of the film "Ugetsu" I've seen usually refer to it as "Ugetsu monogatari," which they then go on to claim translates into English as "Tales of a Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain." I have no idea whether or not this translation is accurate in a literal sense, but it has the virtue of conveying to an English-speaker not to expect a movie that is straightforward and prosaic.

The film was directed by Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956), who is considered one of the greatest Japanese directors, ranking alongside Kurosawa and Ozu. If you're like me and don't know much about Mizoguchi, you can learn a lot by watching the two-and-one-half-hour-long 1975 Japanese-language documentary on him that comes with the DVD set.

The only English-language bonus material on the DVD's is the feature-length audio commentary track by Tony Rayns, a critic, filmmaker and festival programmer. I found listening to his commentary to be very worthwhile. Among the many good points he makes is that while the movie depicts militarism and families devastated by war in the 16th century, 1950's audiences would have been keenly aware of the parallels with what happened in Japan during the 1930's and '40's.

The DVD's contain three additional extras, all of which are in Japanese: (1) a 20-minute video interview with the first assistant director on "Ugetsu"; (2) a 10-minute video interview with the film's cinematographer; and (3) a 14-minute appreciation of "Ugetsu" by Masahiro Shinoda, a director who was prominent in the Japanese New Wave, which was a reaction to filmmakers like Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi.

Below I've listed all the details for the "Ugetsu" DVD set.

DVD Details:

Release Date: November 8, 2005
Number of Discs: 2
Feature Film Run Time: 1 hr. 37 min.
Full-Screen (1.33:1), Black-and-White
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Japanese Monaural
English Subtitles
Audio Commentary by Critic and Filmmaker Tony Rayns
Appreciation of "Ugetsu" by Director Masahiro Shinoda (14 min.)
Interview With "Ugetsu" First Assistant Director (20 min.)
Interview With "Ugetsu" Cinematographer (10 min.)
"Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director" (2 hr. 30 min.)
Theatrical Trailers (3)
72-Page Booklet With Critic's Essay and 3 Short Stories

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