Ugetsu Monogatarai was made not long after Akira Kurosawas Rashomon (1950), which revolutionized Japanese cinema. There and in his subsequent films, Kurosawa had created the school of Japanese neo-realism with his use of black-and-white photography, crafting tales usually set around feudal times and with much emphasis placed on the raw visual poetry and the naturalistic realism of the settings. Ugetsu Monogatari buys into the lyrical realism and feudal dynastic background that Kurosawa had established. Indeed, Saka Ozawas over-the-top acting in the role as the scruffy wannabe samurai seems closely modelled on Toshiro Mifunes performance as the bandit in Rashomon.
There is a beautiful formalism to Kenzo Mizoguchis direction. The marriage scenes could almost be taken out of Noh theatre in their exquisitely mannered ceremony and the images of Machiko Kyo (who also played the raped wife in Rashomon) as Lady Wakasa moving through the house in her elegantly aloof formal makeup. Contrary to many kaidan eiga, Ugetsu Monogatari is realist through and through. There are no overtly fantastical appearances rather the ghosts appear as normal people and mortals have no ability to tell the difference. That said, the scenes with Genjuro confronting Lady Wakasa with symbols painted all over his body and the nurse ranting and weeping, trying to wield guilt, as Lady Wakasa fearfully backs off, are extraordinarily charged (and superbly scored with wailing traditional Japanese string music). There is also an excellent scene near the end where Genjuro returns home and enters the empty house and then passes on through and around to come back in again, during which this second time around we see the wife sitting over the fire cooking in the foreground. It is a beautifully subtle moment that leaves you unsure whether you missed something the first time or whether she made a ghostly reappearance, something that not even the rewind button manages to dispel.
The storys theme of the humble peasant who abandons his wife in order to move to a position above his station and is haunted for doing so is a theme that has run through a number of other kaidan eiga, including the Black Hair segment of the superb ghost story anthology Kwaidan (1964) and the oft-filmed Yotsuya Ghost Story see Ghost Story of Yotsuya (1959) and Illusion of Blood (1965).
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