This analogy is going to seem a little strained but bear with me! I support Liverpool Football Club, and I often find myself unhappily comparing the current side propped up by the two outstanding talents of Gerrard and Torres with the superb team play of the great Reds' sides of the seventies. Both generation's teams have been led by genius, Shankly the legend, who made great players into a great team, and Benitez the tactician, who hides his players shortcomings with guile. When the modern day Liverpool play well, it is the wizardry of the poorly bearded general that makes its mark, but when the great teams of yesteryear hit their stride the reason was a complete enterprise of great players doing their own jobs brilliantly. The two experiences of great results are entirely different as one, Benitez's, is about a well martialled success despite the far from perfect team or resources, and the other is about a belief in a common endeavour of real quality.
As I have pointed out before, a lot of the value of Kenji Mizoguchi's films is due to the fine work of his regular collaborators, and, conversely, even if the collaborators excel they are still dependent on the leadership and commitment of a great artist. I therefore compare the best of the director's works with the Scotsman in that Mizoguchi seeks excellence from his cast and crew, and they, in turn, are inspired by him. Ugetsu Monogatari, possibly the best proof of Mizoguchi's excellence, is untouchable as what is clumsily called a portmanteau film and, alongside Masaki Kobayashi' Kwaidan, ranks as one of the greatest ghost films ever committed to celluloid. The reasons for the film's quality are many, but crucially it is the superb continuity of all those involved and their sense of common project which give the film its greatness.
Adapted from the short stories of Akinari Ueda and scripted with a sureness of touch that allows the respective tales to thread in and out of one another, Yoshitaki Yoda's screenplay takes its lead from the recent wartime experience of its intended Japanese audience to create a milieu of chaos and dirty deeds, albeit here set in the 16th century. Typically for a Mizoguchi film, those most harmed by this cruel world are the women, and it is the men who fail to protect them because they become lost in ambition, greed and vanity. The two couples at the story's heart are the potter Genjuro and wife Miyagi, who become separated by seductive ghosts and the lure of wealth, and Tobei and Ohama, the husband chasing the status of being a samurai and causing his love to become a fallen woman.
The men get sidetracked and lost in pride whilst the women pay for their vulnerability to rampaging soldiers through rape and murder. Dreams of riches and wealth become the men's undoing and they learn to embrace the farming life which they once were so keen to leave behind. Masayuki Mori and Eitaro Ozawa are the boneheads swayed by money and dreams, and they make their dumb men instinctive and misled in stark contrast to the serene Kinuyo Tanaka and the wronged Mitsuko Mito. The supporting characters include dying boatmen, elegant ghosts and their retinue, and an endless stream of hungry and bewildered soldiers who rape, pillage and flee as circumstances arise.
The world is cruel, unjust and full of unhappy chance which destroys superficial dreams. Lovers picnic whilst spindly trees grope the air around them, fog causes people to get lost and usually those who are best armed and most strong are as scared as anyone else. In short, Mizoguchi's world of war is dark place of cruelty created by his excellent cast, Yoda's elegant script, the superb photography of Kazuo Miyagawa, the fantastic costumes and sets, and Fumio Hayasaka's eerie and empathetic music. Few movie makers ever got the kind of collective excellence that Mizuguchi musters here and the piece is topped off by a superb signature long take where our two central lovers are re-united despite the grave. I've said it before but Ugetsu is one of the greatest films ever made. Spooky, unnerving and with an awful lot to say about war, men, and the women they sacrifice.
Much more in the Benitez vein of expertise rescuing less impressive materials, is Oyu Sama, made a couple of years earlier and a story which has aged less well than other of the director's work. Kinuyu Tanaka plays the titular widow beholden to her in-laws to avoid re-marrying, and whose sister marries her one true love so the two can be vicariously close if not properly together. Propriety is offended and the in-laws send Miss Oyu back to her family when rumours of misplaced affections offend them. Suddenly, Oyu is free from her obligations and her sister tells her that she's been keeping her man warm everywhere but the bedroom, but Oyu won't take her sister's husband and breaks the love triangle for good.
Because of the climate of US censorship when the film was made, the original novel is watered down substantially in its treatment of the love triangle at its core. Like the preceding film, the quality of the crew on Miss Oyu is undeniable but here the screenplay is more culture and time bound, and many modern viewers may find themselves asking just what the problem is in this modern Mizoguchi tale of forbearance and sacrifice. Even when offered the man she loves on a plate, guilt free, and with his wife's blessing Oyu chooses unhappiness and a life of empty luxury. Where there was a consistent moral universe with the clear conflict of war in Ugetsu, Miss Oyu simply offers a historical notion of modesty that keeps the lovers apart and consequently the dramatic tension of the film seems rather thin because of it.
The contributions from the cast and the skill of the director are all very good, but with a hamstrung story and deliberately timid depiction, Miss Oyu is an excellent realisation of a weak concept with Mizoguchi and crew working hard, but the raw material of the sacrificial story simply not being that resonant. It would be wrong to ignore some very striking compositions using the three parts of the love triangle and the camera's frame, and some shots which seem to herald later boating images in both Ugetsu and Sansho Dayu, and the craft deployed here is definitely noteworthy. Still what would be an exceptional work by nearly any other director is merely a good one from the great Mizoguchi.
Unfortunately, I did not receive the booklet that forms part of this release and can not comment on it or compare it against the sumptuous Criterion release for Ugetsu. The two films are presented on separate dual layer discs with introductions on both movies from Tony Rayns in the same black and white straight to camera style of the other MOC Mizoguchi releases, and trailers for the Ugetsu are included as well. Rayns talks about Ugetsu being a "pet project" and its failure to win the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival because the jury felt no film that year deserved such an accolade! In his piece on Oyu-Sama, he discusses the formation of Daiei and its problems with censorship from the occupying Americans, and the differences between Junichiro Tanazaki's novel and the finished film. The menus are static and tasteful in their re-creation of the title sequence art of both films and options can be easily chosen.
The AV quality of both discs keeps up the high standards of Masters of Cinema with the prints showing some wear but the transfers being sharp and sympathetically done. Comparing the Criterion transfer to this new one for Ugetsu, both images are similar in terms of contrast and detail with a marginal edge in the Criterion transfer for stronger, deeper black levels in some sequences. I noticed moments of edge enhancement more in the Criterion transfer of Ugetsu but I don't feel either transfer is excessive in this respect. The audio tracks on both are excellent given the age of the film and I noted no mastering problems with the new treatment. On the MOC disc, the film is immediately followed by the two trailers without choosing them separately.
The transfer for Oyu Sama is less impressive with more damage visible and audible, and the image less stable than for Ugetsu. Detail is still good whilst the transfer is not razor sharp, and the contrast is strong overall. The audio is a little indistinct in places and there is more background noise to notice than with first disc. The English subtitles for both discs are excellent, easily read and optional.
Don't misunderstand my preference for Ugetsu as being a sign that Oyu-Sama is not worth your time. Oyu Sama is beautifully made and an accomplished work, but Ugetsu is a masterpiece which no fan of Japanese cinema should be without. This latest release from Masters of Cinema is an excellent purchase for those who don't already own the Criterion disc of Ugetsu, and for those new to both films it is heartily recommended.