No clear line of demarcation separates the realms of the real and the supernatural in Kenji Mizoguchi's 1953 masterpiece Ugetsu, and every time the director pulls out the rug, it seems freshly devastating. Though Ugetsu deserves a place among cinema's great ghost stories, its hauntings are never explicit or frightening like a horror movie; in fact, they're so subtly integrated into the narrative fabric that the film seems to exist on another plane. Take its most celebrated sequence: Fleeing from a 16th-century civil war that has razed their village, two couples set off into the eerily quiet night on a boat, where they negotiate an otherworldly fog on their way to safety. Out of the mist comes what first appears to be a phantom boat, drifting along without a navigator, but when they catch up to it, they discover a mortally wounded man, warning of trouble ahead. In this case, what seemed to be unreal turned out to be real, but Mizoguchi turns the tables again at a couple of crucial junctures later on, creating an atmosphere that's destabilizing—and, in the end, powerfully tragic.
One of cinema's great humanists, Mizoguchi brought his career to full flower after the war; films like Ugetsu and Sansho The Bailiff addressed contemporary cruelties by finding strong corollaries in Japanese history. Where Sansho follows a political family torn apart by the changing tides, Ugetsu looks at the effects of war on the peasant class, which similarly has no power to protect itself from the coming savagery. As the civil war approaches their village, two dreamers initially seize the opportunity to improve their station in life: Masayuki Mori, a master potter, seeks to sell his wares to neighboring cities, while his friend Sakae Ozawa wants to become a great samurai, but has neither the training nor the equipment. Both men fulfill their dreams, but at an enormous price to their wives, who exiled to the awful realities they left behind.
Mizoguchi's concern for the plight of women was always a hallmark of his career, but in Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life Of A Film Director—a comprehensive 150-minute documentary included in the new DVD package of Ugetsu—it's a surprise to learn that his early backers forced him to make films about women, because a colleague specialized in films about men. Needless to say, he took well to the role: Though Ugetsu doesn't center on its female characters as exclusively as many of his other films, Mizoguchi's sympathies naturally fall to them, even the sad apparition (Machiko Kyô) who lures Mori away from home. For all the hardships visited upon these characters, Mizoguchi's generosity of spirit leads to an ending that's simultaneously devastating and bittersweet, as transcendent as a spirit emerging from the vapors.