Of the three Japanese masters who jointly made their belated entry on the international film market in the 1950s (Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi), Kenji Mizoguchi is usually considered the toughest nut for a Western audience to crack. But while there’s nothing particularly off-putting or difficult about this ghost-ridden fable of two couples riding out the interminable civil wars of feudal-era Japan, the distinctive tone can jar. Two neighboring farmers, one an artistically gifted potter with a son and the other his occasional assistant, try to take financial advantage of the conflict by firing a batch of earthenware before the warring armies march thru. Leaving behind his wife & young son, the potter heads to the big city to sell his work, along with his assistant (who is mad to join the wars as a samurai) and his wife who is an expert oarsperson. The men each find their own personal traps, putting wealth or glory above family duties, and everyone winds up paying a fierce price in the end. For years, this stunning film was betrayed by inferior prints that masked the washed look of charcoal sketched landscapes of the original prints, a matte-textured surface that is now lovingly rendered in the Criterion DVDs. But there’s still the tradition of Japanese ghost stories, with their matter-of-fact tone about things supernatural. It’s a bit of a leap for Western audiences, but the payoff is immense, one of the most devastating, subtle & moving endings in cinema. So, adjust!
DOUBLE-BILL: It may sound like an odd match (okay, it is an odd match), but one of the few Hollywood films to deal in a similarly matter-of-fact manner with a narrative ghostly presence, and hardly a special effect in sight, is Joseph Mankiewicz’s marvelous romance, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR/’47. While the film may be no more than good Pop entertainment, the superb British-influenced Bernard Herrmann score really can stand comparison with Mizoguchi.