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Ugetsu – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

Here’s a tale of love, family, and ambition set during a time of war. That would seemingly be the kind of film anyone would be able to relate to. I am admittedly less familiar with Kenji Mizoguchi, compared to other acclaimed Japanese filmmakers, but Ugetsu was a movie with a level of acclaim I could hardly avoid hearing about over the years. Winner of the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1953, this new release from The Criterion Collection provides an update from the DVD edition, allowing the film to look and sound better than ever, in addition to its presentation of an excellent archival documentary that goes over the life of Mizoguchi. Cinephiles will be happy to see this upgrade.

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Film:

Set during the Japanese Civil Wars of the 16th century, Ugetsu is a deeply atmospheric film that blends the real with the surreal. It tells the story of a family man farmer and craftsman who travels to another village to sell his products and make money. At the same time, the man’s neighbor dreams of becoming a samurai, but cannot afford the outfit. The two work together to benefit each other, but problems involving invading armies leading to the two men and their families to escape. From there, further drama takes place, which includes interactions with supernatural elements.

Ugetsu is based on two ghost stories by Akinari Ueda and Guy de Maupassant and given the wide variety of things going into such a layered film, it is a bit difficult to detail the exact plot beyond some points on where these characters are going. That’s hardly a negative, however, as the film rewards patience and observation. This is the kind of film many esteemed filmmakers get around to making, once getting past the allure of plot-driven spectacle. And yet, with that in mind, Mizoguchi has such a firm handle on his camera work, which moves around scenes and keeps one invested.

As noted from the start, Ugetsu contains many ideas that could be found in any number of dramas or adventure films. That said, Mizoguchi is less interested in delivering surface-level entertainment enriched by the character work and action on display. While Akira Kurosawa may have entered into American pop culture by making more accessible films (that’s in no way a slight), Mizoguchi is a director who arrived on the scene much earlier than Kurosawa (since the silent film era) and continued to deliver unique experiences such as this one. Again, while not up to speed on a lot of Mizoguchi films, there’s a quality here that shows the power he had in utilizing long takes, camera movement and an understanding of letting themes inform the story.

It’s that filmmaking that should be inspiring to many who feel an investment in film. Blending noir, surrealism, drama, and adventure into one movie is by no means an easy feat, and yet Ugetsu finds avenues to explore that meld such genres, without feeling overbearing. The film even has an anti-war stance running through it, which is fitting for a Japanese film of the 1950s, but no less interesting. Add to this a couple of strong performances by Masayuki Mori and Eitaro Ozawa, among others, and one can find a strong level of commitment from all involved with Ugetsu.

While I’m probably more attracted the flashiness of something like Seven Samurai or even a film as introspective of Rashomon (because I’m apparently a hip kid that likes newer filmmakers like Kurosawa over an elder statesmen like Mizoguchi or Ozu), it is not at all a burden to watch such an elegantly made film like Ugetsu. It’s a real treat to see the interpretation of particular stories come to life in a way that only has so many ways of reading it, given the filmmaker behind the camera and visual possibilities afforded to him. Having a layered story behind the results only further enhances said experience.

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Video:



Encoding
: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Clarity/Detail: I am happy to be accustomed to expecting a solid new transfer from Criterion, and they do not disappoint here. Ugetsu arrives on Blu-ray with a new 4K digital restoration that makes fine work of a film where the balance of black and white imagery can be crucial. While there are limits to what can be seen, the film does provide a level of clarity to the environments we are placed in. Details involving the shops or samurai costumes play well in various scenes, while the great camera work allows us to see the settings in full, as intended.

Depth: Thanks to the use of characters within rural settings, there is a real sense of depth to be found here. It adds plenty for a release as cleaned up as this one, given how well the interaction levels are and the staging of the movie.

Black Levels: This is maybe the most important aspect of this new transfer, as I’ve scanned some screen from previous releases and found that a restoration could only make this film shine brighter. That is the cast here, as there is a definite improvement to be found in both the lack of crush and general balance of the black levels. There is a deep and rich look to the film that benefits its nighttime scenes and makes various aspects stand out in daylight.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: Facial textures are great. We are treated to plenty of shots of these characters at varying distances, and the clarity is always strong.

Noise/Artifacts: This film has been cleaned up, with no traces of scratches, lines or any other distortion.

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Audio:

Audio Format(s): Japanese LPCM 1.0

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: This may be an old film, but the lossless track has an enormous amount of clarity that deserves high regard here. There are no hiccups to be found in the reproduction of this audio track, making it clean and clear throughout.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: You can hear all the discussions.

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Extras:


Ugetsu features a phenomenal set of extras, the highlight being a feature length archival documentary going over the career of Mizoguchi. Additionally, other interviews, trailers and a commentary all add to this impressive collection.

Features Include:

  • Audio Commentary by critic, filmmaker and festival programmer Tony Rayns – Recorded in 2005.
  • Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (1975) (HD, 150:00) – This is a lengthy documentary, but so fascinating, given the amount of information found here and the interviews with various Japanese actors and filmmakers.
  • Two Worlds Intertwined (SD, 15:00) – A 2005 interview with director Masahiro Shionoda, discussing the film.
  • Process and Production (SD, 21:00) – A 2005 interview with the first assistant director of the movie, Tokuzo Tanaka.
  • Interview with Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (SD, 11:00) – Recorded in 1992s, the acclaimed cinematographer (he also shot Yojimbo and Rashomon, among other films), talks Ugetsu.
  • Trailer (HD, 4:00) – Original Japanese trailer with English subtitles.
  • Trailer (HD, 2:00) – Original incomplete Spanish trailer with English subtitles.
  • PLUS – A book featuring an essay by film critic Philip Lopate and three short stories that inspired the film.

 

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Summary:

A lot of the joy of covering Criterion Collection releases is discovering films that have been restored to look good as new. As much as I’m happy to collect older and contemporary films given the Criterion treatment, there is a lot to take in from all of film history and seeing something like Ugetsu plays to why I’m so interested in doing this. I can only imagine my appreciation for the movie will grow as time goes on, but having this Blu-ray set does a lot to have me consider what kinds of master filmmakers have been involved with this format and just how great cinema can be during any era. I’ve certainly enjoyed other Japanese classics from the Golden Age, but taking this film in for the first time was a treat. Film fans should look out for this one.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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