Setter’s ‘Spectives: Thinking About ‘Ugetsu’ and Other Flicks

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I like Kenji Mizoguchi’s films. I think he’s a top-class director.

Is he greater than Akira Kurosawa, though? I’m not sure. I will admit, I’ve been thinking about Ugetsu more than The Seven Samurai recently, and I don’t know why.

There’s a haunting moment in the former flick that has stuck in my mind. After the potter Genjuro escapes from the clutches of the ghost of Lady Wakasa, he finds himself in a field bestrewn with the ruins of her mansion. A song she once sang for him is played as he wanders, stunned, among the skeleton of the house.

What a sad, wonderful, evocative moment. So eerie. It’s part of what makes Ugetsu the best ghost story put on film … next to Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan. But where the latter movie was daring in its use of color and sound, Ugetsu is relatively conservative, using stately, composed shots and wistful music to move the action, as well as provide tangible atmosphere.

I’ll be debating for a long time whether Mizoguchi is better than Kurosawa. With pictures such as Ugetsu, however, I wonder if there really is any debate.

Skip’s Quips: ‘Tis the Season for ‘Kwaidan’

Blog Sketch 082813Those seeking atmosphere in their films this Halloween over the standard weapon-wielding-maniac-goes-amok choices would do well to consider watching Kwaidan, Masaki Kobayashi’s colorful, eerie anthology of Japanese ghost stories. Adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of supernatural tales, this 1964 masterpiece is one of a kind, with gorgeous painted backdrops, stylized performances and pointed commentary on human foibles.

No, it’s not your everyday Halloween fare. But Halloween doesn’t come every day, anyway, so why not try it?

Personally, I find the film one of the most beautiful ever made, with stunning cinematography, bizarre landscapes (check out the eyes looking out at humanity from the sky in the second story), a creepy, minimalist score by the great composer Toru Takemitsu, and one of the best battle scenes ever put on film, a brilliantly photographed sea contest fought by doomed samurai in the movie’s centerpiece, the tale of Hoichi the Earless.

I’m not gonna reveal the derivation of the latter story’s title, but you can rest assured it’s completely warranted.

Bear in mind this flick isn’t as traditionally scary as, say, John Carpenter’s original Halloween or Jacques Tourneur’s terrific evil-on-the-loose film Curse of the Demon. Kwaidan makes up for those issues, however, with a disturbing, ominous tone and an otherworldly feel only achieved by the greatest ghost stories. It’s also from first-rate source material; you may want to grab the book for more after viewing the film, in which case you’ll encounter tales of people without faces, priests who battle bodyless ghouls, and other subjects.

Check Kwaidan out. It’s not very well known, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t memorable. Halloween probably won’t be the same to you afterward.

Skip’s Quips: Why Not Remake ‘Citizen Kane’ While We’re at It?

This isn’t something a critic freely admits, but I have to say it anyway: I didn’t see Takashi Miike’s remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s classic 1962 film Harakiri.

I did watch the original, however. That’s the reason right there.

I’m always puzzled as to why directors feel they have to recreate cinematic masterpieces. The 1983 American iteration of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless comes to mind first, but it’s only one point in a long line of reinterpretations. Remakes are about as traditional as apple pie, yet they’re rarely warranted. Miike’s version of Harakiri is an example. A brilliant, harrowing attack on feudal convention and injustice, Kobayashi’s iteration–the story of a samurai who, after telling a damning tale recounting his history, revenges himself on a clan that has destroyed his impoverished family–is as indignant as a film can get…and mesmerizing through and through.

I can’t think of any way it can be improved upon, and so I feel Miike’s version is irrelevant.

True, even great films aren’t perfect. I don’t think any work of art is without flaws. But you don’t care when viewing the best ones. You only want to be in their world.

So I’m not going to watch Miike’s remake of Harakiri. In this case, ignorance is bliss. But I may put on Kobayashi’s iteration sometime soon. And absorb it to the fullest–as such originality deserves.