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Tuesday, August 7, 2012


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.

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