As the spotlight shines firmly on Japan as a part of the wide array of films being shown at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, a fantastic series is now running highlighting some of the best actresses to ever come out of the Japanese cinema. Japanese Divas: Great Actresses of Classic Japanese Cinema will run from January 24 to March 31. This two month retrospective will highlight some of the best female performances to ever come out of Japanese cinema. Kicking off the series is Ugetsu – an emotionally poignant and potent story dealing with the true costs of greed and ambition that is significant and important even to this day.
Set at the beginning of the springtime in the period of the Japanese Civil Wars of the Sixteenth Century, a family man, farmer and craftsman, Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) travels to Nagahama to sell his wares and makes a small fortune. His neighbor Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) is a foolhardy man who dreams of becoming a samurai, but he can’t afford to buy the necessary tools for the job. Genjurô and Tobei work together manufacturing clay potteries, however their wives Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) are worried about the army of the cruel pirates that is coming to their village so the families decide to flee and survive. Now travelling by boat with their wives and a baby to sell the wares in a bigger town, they come across another boat that was attacked by pirates, Genjurô decides to leave his wife and son on the bank of the river, promising to return in ten days after they sell their potteries. Tobei ultimately leaves his wife to buy the samurai outfit and seek fame and fortune. Meanwhile, the female aristocratic Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo) and her servant ask Genjurô to bring her shopping to her fancy Kutsuki House and soon both Genjurô and Tobei discover the ultimate price that they have to pay for their ambition.
It’s easy to see why Ugetsu is widely regarded as one of the greatest Japanese films of all time, as this powerful morality fable works on so many levels. Director Kenji Mizoguchi, through the use of some sweeping cinematography and bold imagery, manages to transform the novels of Ueda Akinari into a lyrical and visually stunning story that you can’t help but get wrapped up in. Every movement as we follow each character is filled with vibrant detail as this saga of love and loss makes it all seem so important, there’s never a wasted frame as the tragic nature of this story is always at the forefront. The narrative moves at a very steady pace and is hammered home thanks to some very solid performances.
Machiko Kyo, Kinuyo Tanaka and Mitsuko Mito all play variations on tragic female characters to massive effect as they are all key to either initiating or bearing witness to the down fall of our greedy and ambitious male characters. Masayuki Mori, a veteran of another film playing in this series, Rashomon, is excellent as the well intentioned man being led down the rabbit hole of desire, and Eitaro Ozawa plays off him well as his hedonistic counterpart. The rich nature of human ambition and its potential outcomes all play out in the very expressive faces of the entire ensemble who really do pack an emotional wallop by the end of it all.
Ugetsu is not only a seminal Japanese film, but a seminal film, period. It probably plays better now than it did 60 years ago, and is an excellent start to such a brilliant retrospective.
Cast: Masayuki Mori, Eitaro Ozawa, Kinuyo Tanaka, Mitsuko Mito
Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
Ugetsu plays at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thursday January 24 at 6:15 p.m. To learn more about this film and the others playing during the Japanese Divas: Great Actresses of Classic Japanese Cinema retrospective, visit tiff.net.