Kenji Mizoguchi is considered one of the masters of Japanese cinema, striking a balance between the contemplation of Ozu and the emotion of Kurosawa, who looked up to Mizoguchi. He has been championed by the likes of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and New York Times critic Vincent Canby. He began in the silent era and his first acclaimed films were made in 1936 about the struggles of women, Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy. Ugetsu, a masterpiece from his latter period, came out in 1953 and was the second of three consecutive films that earned him the Silver Lion from the Venice Film Festival.
Set during the civil wars of 16th century Japan, the film tells the story of two families torn apart by the men’s drive for success because false paths are chosen. Genjuro is a potter so obsessed with making money and the benefits in stature that will accompany it he puts lives in jeopardy to attain it. Tobei wants to impress his wife by becoming a samurai but is rejected by their ranks. He too is blinded by his desire and makes reckless decisions in the pursuit of his goal.
When a marauding army is on its way, most of the villagers flee. Genjuro and his family along with Tobei’s stay dangerously close by so Genjuro can make sure the fire in his kiln doesn’t go out, which would cause him to lose a batch of pottery. After the army storms through, the families gather up all of Genjuro’s pottery and head out to the city to sell it. As they cross the lake, they come across a small boat with a man who has recently been attacked by pirates and is near death. Genjuro has his wife and young child disembark to keep them safe. He tells them to hide in the wilderness and await his return.
At the marketplace, they make a great deal of money. Genjuro is asked to bring a large order to the home of the very beautiful Lady Wakasa. She is very impressed with him and his work, which feeds into his ego. Tobei runs off to buy the armor and weaponry that a samurai needs. He intentionally loses his wife in the crowd and pursues his ambition. After fulfilling their dreams, the men discover the havoc their choices have wreaked upon their families and themselves.
To create this powerful and thought-provoking story, Mizoguchi wisely chose talented people to bring his vision the screen. The poignancy of the characters is fully realized by the amazing performances of the cast who create natural, believable characters. Mizoguchi was very serious about the accuracy of the film’s setting, which can be attested to by the fact that a person on the crew was credited with Period Authenticity.