Ugetsu ★★★½

Kenji Mizoguchi's widespread placement as one of the greatest film directors of mid-20th Century Japan—bested only by the king himself, Akira Kurosawa—is an understanding that, for lack of a better term, just sort of confuses me. Granted, Ugetsu is only the second Mizoguchi film I've seen, after The Crucified Lovers, but both films feel like the sort of movies I generally abstain from reviewing for lack of anything interesting to say. But I decided before watching this that I'd review it, so I'll give it my best shot.

Of course, Ugetsu gets far more right than it does wrong. In particular, the long takes for which Mizoguchi is so renowned work beautifully with the director's keen eye for production design. Whether using built sets or natural locations, Mizoguchi finds stimulating backgrounds in which to place his characters, which is magnified by his strong tendency to let his camera and actors really explore the space around them. It gives the film a real sense of scope.

Story-wise, I find Ugetsu to be pretty good, but nothing about this screams "masterpiece." The supernatural element is decent, and the film uses it to end one of the two male characters' stories well enough. (Not such a big fan of the stupid samurai-wannabe who disappears for 15 minutes, only to come back for 30 seconds so he and his wife could literally spell out his character arc.) But the two men who anchor this story are pretty... I don't want to go so far as to say "unlikeable," but I didn't exactly find myself latching onto anyone.

My level of engagement with Ugetsu more or less started hovering around a 7 and stayed there, unflinching, for the entire runtime. Mizoguchi just strikes me as a director whose work is very well-made, but that I'll also wind up forgetting about a week or two after it's experienced. His thematic grasp of war and imperialist Japanese ideals is admirable, but he seems to work in this grey zone without the subtlety of Naruse or the bluntness of Kobayashi to really drive it home. The love for Ugetsu is pretty unanimous, so take this opinion with even more hesitation than you normally would. Alls I'm saying is that ranking Mizoguchi above Kobayashi and Ozu is... dubious, to say the least.

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