I can't decide which of Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu or Sansho the Bailiff is a sadder tale. There is a case to be made that, although Sansho has more misery onscreen, Ugetsu has a more relatable tragedy at its center. Like in Sansho, Mizoguchi creates plentiful room for beauty amid the sadness, intermingling his characters in feudal Japan with nature that is both nurturing and punishing. And even when Mizoguchi introduces these transcendentally gorgeous moments, despair and misfortune are never far behind. He seems interested in giving as objective and even-keeled a view of life as possible, with the incredibly wise understanding that the world is filled with equal measures of light and darkness.
The story concerns two couples in a Japan that is being wrenched by civil war. In one, the husband is an ambitious potter who plans to take advantage of the added value of his wares during wartime. His wife is dutiful to him, and helps him to achieve his goal, even as he continuously neglects her and their young son. The other man is a layabout, a fool who believes he can become a great samurai without much effort. His wife refuses to kowtow to his silly dream, but drives him away with her stridency and lack of understanding.
When soldiers arrive at their village, the couples narrowly escape capture and manage to head to the big city to sell the potter's large inventory for a life-changing profit. The two men and the fool's wife leave the potter's wife and child behind when it becomes apparent that the road is too dangerous for the woman and the boy. While in the city, the potter makes good money, but is beguiled by a beautiful and mysterious young woman who is a local noble. He follows her to her manor, where she seduces him into becoming her thrall and staying with her as her husband.
The fool runs away to become a samurai, taking credit for the death of an enemy general by stealing his head after the soldier commits suicide. In the shuffle, the fool's wife is raped by soldiers, and she becomes a prostitute. Meanwhile, back home, the potter's wife is killed by soldiers, leaving their son to an unknown fate.
As in my piece about Sansho the Bailiff, I give a synopsis of the plot of Ugetsu because the film has a lot of external factors working against the interest of contemporary viewers who are not completionist film buffs like me. For example, the film is in black and white, spoken in Japanese with English subtitles, and does not feature any stars to draw a crowd. It also takes a little while to develop momentum, as Mizoguchi prefers to set the scene with incidental action among the main cast to build their characters. All of this is necessary to set up the stakes for when everything starts to go horribly wrong for these four unfortunate souls.
Ugetsu is frequently hailed as one of the most beautiful films ever made, and I believe that much of that is owed to Mizoguchi's perpetually roving camera. But this is not the showy, tracking-shot laden cinematography of a film-maker like Martin Scorsese or Stanley Kubrick. Mizoguchi's camera glides gently over the action, somehow maintaining striking compositions of the actors and objects in the frame even as it moves. The best way to characterize the tone of Mizoguchi's visual approach is elegiac. He looks on the characters and this world with sympathy, but never overly sentimental pity. The world may be cruel to these people, but Mizoguchi is not.