Part sensual ghost story and part cautionary tale about profiteering from war, Ugetsu is a stunning film. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi in 1953, the film concerns two families in a small village during the rampant civil wars of the 16th century. One couple is tragicomic: The pathetic and groveling husband wants to be a famous samurai, and his wife, who spends most of her time dragging him home.
The other family is grimly flawed. Masayuki Mori plays a man who doesn't want to escape his trade so much as achieve transcendence through it, and he throws pots at a breakneck speed, hoping to sell his wares at war-inflated prices in the city. His wife (played by the great Mizoguchi muse Kinuyo Tanaka, who would become the first Japanese woman to direct a film in that same year) gently warns him to resist his greed. Neither husband pays heed, and soon the men are recklessly pursuing fame, wealth, and sex while their vulnerable wives wait behind.
The film then takes a turn toward a beautiful and erotically charged ghost narrative, inspired by the Akinari Ueda story "A Serpent's Lust" (from an 18th-century collection that gives its name to the film). An upper-class enchantress praises the potter's work, plies him with sake, and then demands that he marry her. Powerless to resist an aristocrat's flattery and sexual allure, he consents. Meanwhile, life in the distant village goes on its tragic way.
Ugetsu is the pinnacle of Mizoguchi's achievement, so it's a good thing it's getting a three-day run at Northwest Film Forum.