UGETSU MONOGATARI directed by Kenji Mizoguchi (Japan, 1953)

This is not so much a ghost story as a story with ghosts and a far cry from mainstream horror flicks such as Paranormal Activity.

The depth and lyricism of classic Japanese movies like this make most contemporary films look shallow and superficial. It is justifiably included in the BFI/Sight & Sound list of the top 50 greatest ever films.

Mizoguchi began making films in the silent era, then with a burst of creativity in the last decade of his life, he made six celebrated films before his death in 1956 aged 58.

This masterpiece works on so many different levels that to focus on just one risks reducing the overall impact.

The plot centres on two couples whose simple lives are disrupted by civil war. It is based on two short novels by Akinari Ueda (from his collection Tales of Moonlight and Rain) and a story titled Décoré by Guy de Maupassant.

In an excellent essay about the film, Phillip Lopate calls it a “gender tragedy” since it shows weak-willed and selfish men who neglect their stoic wives in pursuit of their own goals. One dreams of becoming a samurai soldier, the other has the more humble ambition of seeking to make his fortune as a potter. In war, as in peacetime, money and power are fundamental driving forces.

Genjuri, the potter, is sidetracked and bewitched by the mysterious Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo). Only gradually does it become apparent that she and her mother are ghosts. Wakasa’s heavily made up face looks like she’s wearing a mask and just as in Noh theatre her movements are precisely choreographed as she weaves a captivating spell on her prey.

Kenji Mizoguichi

Although this is a male dominated world, it the fate of the women which is crucial to the story. They allow us to see the degree to which the common people are physically and morally oppressed by social upheaval. One is raped and forced into a life of prostitution, the other, Miyagi, desperately seeks to survive with her young baby as gangs of hungry and desperate soldiers roam the countryside.

Despite the hardship and suffering, the message at the end is one of forgiveness and hope. It’s a marvellous film enhanced by the expertise of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. He creates magical scenes, rich in symbolism. Watch this sequence when the two couples seek to escape on Lake Biwa to get a flavour of his genius: