“Ugetsu” is an odd piece of work that takes two common Japanese genres, the ghost story and the jidaigeki (period drama), and combines them to produce a film that is accessible to a wide audience by giving us a uniquely human samurai tale with a supernatural edge. The film focuses on how war affects the minds of those who cannot fight and the toll it takes on them and their families, both physically and emotionally.
It starts in a small Japanese village during a time of constant civil war between rival clans. The village is populated by farmers and workers trying to make a decent living without getting involved in this conflict. These villagers include the pottery maker Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) who dreams of making it big and living a luxurious life with his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), who dreams of making a name for himself as a samurai. After Genjuro gets a taste of real money from selling his pottery, he becomes obsessed with getting more at whatever cost, even risking his life in the face of the evil clans.
After their village is attacked, the two families leave together and split up at the nearest town after they learn of the threat of pirates, leaving the men to head into town and make as much money as they can. But both Genjuro and Tobei get lost in their own greed and ambition, with Tobei looking for a way to make a name for himself as a samurai, while Genjuro is visited by a creepy princess who wants more than just his pottery.
There is not much else I can say about “Ugetsu” without spoiling the plot and the journey of self discovery and tragedy these two go on. But I will say that, like most Japanese period pieces, pain is a constant companion throughout their trip and the land of Japan has an odd sense of justice. While the film is slow at times, it only helps with the scenes involving Genjuro and the princess and the gnawing feeling that something is wrong with their forceful relationship.
If you are at least familiar with the genres at play in “Ugetsu” then give this film a try and see how they blend together in this sorrowful tale. And even if you do not know about the themes and atmosphere of a Japanese period piece, this is still a great tale about two small men who wish for something bigger in a harsh and brutal world.
Final Grade: B+