A review requested by a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Ugetsu is everything. I don't think it's the best movie ever made - I don't, in fact, think it's even the best Japanese movie of 1953, what with Tokyo Story sitting right there - but it is among the fullest. It packs its sleek, powerfully efficient 96 minutes with observations on human behavior under stress in several different iterations, combining at least four different genres and two mostly separate plotlines so skillfully that it never feels like what we're watching is any kind of monstrous hybrid. It is probably the most watchable of Mizoguchi Kenji's great movies, which isn't any little thing, given that it comes by that quality without sacrificing the downbeat social commentary of his other early-'50s masterpieces, Life of Oharu and Sansho the Bailiff, or their aching, awesome solemnity.

The film is, ultimately, about war - it is maybe even the most important of all war movies, despite showing not more than a few minutes of anything we might properly consider to be "combat". It's about the civilian cost of war, not its military aspect, presenting a world drawn from history (it's set in the 16th Century, during Oda Nobunaga's campaign to unite Japan under his rule) in which violence is omnipresent and there is little chance to avoid suffering. It is a depiction of the cruelty and arbitrariness of a world full of conflict, in which pain falls upon people irrespective of their deeds: in keeping with Mizoguchi's career-long concern with the representation and treatment of women in the rigidly patriarchal culture of Japan, Ugetsu is the story of two men who make terrible and selfish choices, and how those choices end up harming their wives, who cautioned against those choices in the first place. One can bemoan how unfair it is of Mizoguchi and his screenwriters to play this trick on his female characters, and that's of course true: it is very unfair, because the thing that Ugetsu primarily depicts is the rotten, shocking unfairness of war.

Adapted primarily from two stories in Ueda Akinari's 18th Century ghost story collection Tales of Moonlight and Rain (the translation of Ugetsu monogatari), Ugetsu's twin narratives center on a pair of marriages in the rural village Nakanogo. Genjuro (Mori Masayuki) is a potter frustrated at the lack of success he's found in his craft, which ultimately leads him to a larger town where he makes a small windfall. His wife Miyagi (Tanaka Kinuyo), on the advice of a wise man, begs him to leave well enough alone and focus on securing the homestead against the coming onslaught of soldiers; he only throws himself into the task of making even more pottery to sell at an even greater profit, and is caught off-guard when the promised onslaught arrives. He flees town with his friend Tobei (Ozawa Eitaro), obsessed with becoming a samurai, and Tobei's wife Ohama (Mito Mitsuko); the first of many grim omens to come is when the four adults and Genjuro and Miyagi's son Genichi (Sawamura Ichisaburo), crossing a lake in a thick fog, cross paths with a small boat containing a single passenger (Amano Ichiro) who warns them about pirates before dying. Miyagi and Genichi return to shore, over her impassioned pleas, while the other three continue to another town to sell pottery, after which point they are separated, and the tragedies of Ugetsu begin in earnest.

The unifying constant throughout the movie is the needless suffering imposed in a warring society: each of the four protagonists experiences their own form of misery, and in Miyagi, Tobei, and Ohama's cases, that misery is directly connected to the experience of trying to scrape by and survive in the face of soldiers ransacking the whole landscape. Genjuro's story, surely the one for which the film is best-known, is a bit subtler: he falls in with the intoxicating Lady Wakasa (Kyo Machiko), who absorbs him into her household in an empty mansion so thoroughly that he seems to completely lose all memory of Miyago and Genichi. But Lady Wakasa has her own story of wartime suffering (SPOILERS FOR A 63-YEAR-OLD CANONICAL MASTERPIECE): having been killed years ago, she exists only as a lonely, loveless ghost, and the infatuation she and Genjuro share is a falsehood, a dark parody of the kind of existence she might have lived in time of peace, turned into something hungry and haunting because of her violent death.

It is a perfect script that Kawaguchi Matsutaro and Yoda Yosikata put together: outwardly a domestic tragedy about the ways in which two foolish men abandon their marriages and consign their wives to needless violence, which is by turns a satire of military vainglory, a poetic love story, and a stone-faced horror film as it progresses, returning to tragedy in a final scene that is among cinema's all-time best, particularly as contrasted to the opening, which it consciously reverses both in narrative action and, famously, in its cinematography. And we'll get to the cinematography in a second, since it's the single most celebrated (and rightfully so) aspect of the movie. But I really don't want to go on without paying the script its due: there's nothing quite like Ugetsu as a story, at least not anything that does these things so supremely well. It occupies some kind of paradoxical middle ground between the avowedly fabulistic and the earthy, concrete, and realistic; its description of daily life in the late Sengoku period has the precision and detail of journalism in just the same way that every individual scene - particularly the ones involving Lady Wakasa, but certainly not only those - showcase the characters operating in an elevated manner that suggests a kind of mythic time divorced from history. And all this is in service to one of the greatest anti-war statements in art.

But anyway, yes, this has been known since 1953 as the movie what has that musical score, and those camera movements. Not in that order. And God knows that it's a reputation that Ugetsu comes by entirely fairly. It was, by all accounts, Mizoguchi's avowed intention that the act of watching the film should resemble reading the narrative picture scrolls of traditional Japanese art, and that's exactly what he and cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo carried off: this is among the most emphatically linear of all films, dominated by action moving across the screen as the camera pans from right to left - I will not say that there is not a single example of left-to-right movement anywhere in the film, but if such a thing exists, I've not seen it in my half-dozen or so viewings of the film over the years. Undoubtedly, this gesture reads differently to an audience versed in the artform being referenced than it does to, for example, me; given that Ugetsu (one of the very first Japanese films to make a significant impact on European and American critics and viewers) was knocked in its home country as a film designed for export and Western accolades, it would appear that it maybe reads worse. But it is, anyway, sublime to look at it, simply on purely cinematic grounds. Much of the time, the horizontal movement feels like the world itself holding the characters locked in place: one of the main characteristics of the movement is how implacable it feels, disconnected from the onscreen action and moving at a steady pace regardless of what it passes by. There's something downright deterministic about it, maybe. It sets the film's universe into a tightly-controlled frame, one that binds the onscreen action as much as it depicts it.

And yet, it's also capable of being transporting in its beauty. One of the most famous moments in the film finds Genjuro lounging in a hot spring, with Lady Wakasa joining him; the camera starts moving left in a coy nod of censorship (we never see her enter the water), but as it continues to track along a trickle of water, it becomes much more about what we do see than what we don't: a peaceful natural setting, one that dissolves into a patch of bare earth as the tracking shot transforms into another tracking shot that ends on the couple sitting on a blanket. It's as perfect a visual gesture as the movies have ever made, combining two moments of bucolic pleasure in an elegant but also highly unnatural way, simultaneously underscoring the pleasure the characters feel as part of an unending stream of moments that have neither a beginning nor an end, while also reminding us that there is something inherently impossible and wrong about their love, which is after all a violation of social codes and basic morality. There are few camera movements that do so much, so poetically, and so swiftly.

The movie is an impeccable piece of craft across the board: the musical score by Hayasaka Fumio, Mochizuki Tamekichi, and Saito Ichiro is perfectly tied to the visuals in ways that I don't have anything like the proper vocabulary to describe, but the severely slow drip of notes adds considerably to the sense of myth and poetry, reiterating the inherent formalism of the cinematography. I presume that its immediate success in the esteem of critics was the result of some enthusiasm for the exotic atonality of the style, which remains strikingly austere no matter how many mid-century jidaigeki one sees; regardless of Orientalism, there's a rightness to the music, which sounds ancient and ritualistic simply on its own merits, and which helps to place Ugetsu in a culture whose rhythms and values are fundamentally strange, no matter how close the humans seem to us. It's also edited tremendously well, with some great cross-cutting in particular, linking moments of action in a continuum of violence, or savagely interrupting the Genjuro idyll with reminders of the brutal human world he has selfishly abandoned. The overall pace of the film is a mixture of languid moments stretched over long takes, and a constant sense of propulsion; aided, no doubt, by the film's tendency to elide scenes that aren't directly germane to the plot, which gives the sensation that we keep jumping forth in time. It works; everything about the film does. Ugetsu is beautiful to look at and vividly humane, but it's also a flawless piece of machinery, with every component working tightly together to help present its message and emotions. The result is one of cinema's most expressive works, and a film that everybody with the smallest interest in the medium must see - not just ones, but several times, whenever a reminder is needed of humanity's boundless capacity for cruelty and, more optimistically, humanity's ability to atone.