This is supposedly one of the classics of world cinema. It's been called one of the most beautiful films ever made and its director, Kenji Mizoguchi, has been called the greatest of Japanese filmmakers. Akira Kurosawa looked up to him as his master.
Personally I'd never heard of him, but that's me. Mizoguchi's career goes back to the silent era and he made a lot of straightforward studio films before doing two more esteemed artistic pieces in 1936, Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy. They're about the struggles of modern women and apparently are "bitterly realistic". Mizoguchi developed a visual style that he called "flowing scroll", in which each scene would be done in one very long shot in which the camera would stay back and avoid close-ups. He lost it in the 1940s, the first half of which saw him recruited for the Japanese studios' war propaganda effort, but he got back on form in the 1950s and made several historical masterpieces before dying in 1956. Apparently he was a perfectionist who'd do hundreds of retakes and order a house to be moved several feet for a better view.
Ugetsu Monogatari doesn't conform to any obvious genre, which made me distinctly nervous for most of its running length because I hadn't a clue what was going to happen except that it probably wasn't going to be good. The lead characters are a couple of peasants and their wives in 16th century Japan during the Era of Warring States. Genjuro is a potter who's seen a chance to make a killing out of the wars if he chooses the right markets for his pottery, while Tobei wants to be a samurai. He doesn't have any armour or weapons and it doesn't seem to have even occurred to him that being able to fight might be an advantage in that line of work, but what the hell. They have their dreams. Their wives have a more realistic view of these dreams and are surprisingly strong characters, but unfortunately they can't stop their menfolk from going off and probably getting themselves killed.
If nothing else, this is a refreshingly acid antidote to the usual Disney pap. Follow your heart, no matter what the cost... and you'll deserve all the pain that you get as a result! Peasants should stay peasants. This might sound like the most reactionary message imaginable, but in fact it's just being brutally honest. Mizoguchi isn't attacking ambition, but stupid, irresponsible ambition that you should have known would endanger both you and your family. This is an era in which rival armies roam the countryside looting and raping. Entire bloodlines are being massacred because it's politically expedient. This is not the time to act like a Disney princess.
The film isn't depressing either, though. Lessons are learned. They came at a high price, yes, but Mizoguchi isn't interested in rubbing our faces in it. The ending is oddly uplifting, actually, with a voiceover from a deceased character to explain that wisdom has been gained and the future's looking brighter again.
It would be wrong to give away too much about the plot. It unfolds naturally, letting things happen rather than shoving plot points in our faces, but it's more than capable of getting extreme too. You never know when some soldiers might show up and kill or rape someone, while the plot's been adapted from a couple of 18th century ghost stories with a twist of Guy de Maupassant. Furthermore the cast is energetic and includes some of Japan's greatest actors, despite the fact that Mizoguchi's working hard to make them look like peasants. It would have been easy to lose interest in our two male protagonists and simply turn off, but the actors keep you watching. It helps that their characters really do care about their wives rather than being purely selfish, while Genjuro's materialism is expressed in a way that makes it just as relevant to anyone watching the film today. Crucially the film isn't trying to tell you what to think, but instead paints its characters in shades of grey and lets your sympathies flow and shift as the story moves on.
The film is famously beautiful. To be honest I love all black-and-white and hadn't really noticed, but I have to agree with the consensus that the phantom boat, for instance, is a gorgeous bit of imagery. What does impress me though is that the film can maintain an elegant, sinister tone that can go straight from a gang rape to a ghost story and make it all feel part of the same mysterious world. There's a similar apparently effortless control of tone in the transitions to and from the supernatural. Mizoguchi's using that "moving scroll" technique I was talking about, with the camera roaming around not just horizontally but vertically. His cinematographer guessed that they used a crane to shoot about 70% of this movie. Furthermore you don't need to know anything about Japanese culture to feel the full weight of the class distinctions, whether we're with the peasants, the soldiers or the aristocracy. What the hell are those blobs above Lady Wakasa's eyebrows? What kind of whacko might think that looked flattering? (Her make-up resembles a Noh mask, for what it's worth.)
Would I recommend this film? Yes, I think so, but it's not for all audiences. It's an arty black-and-white historical set in 16th century Japan, although on the upside at least it's shorter than your average Kurosawa-a-thon. 94 minutes. That's not too bad. You'll need a bit of patience to get through the first half in which Genjuro and Tobei haven't yet brought together shit and fan, but rest assured that there are a couple of real "what the hell" moments waiting for you.
The title means "(rain) + (moon or month) + (story)", by the way, but I believe it's more traditional to choose a more poetic translation. "Tales of the Moon and Rain" and "Tales of Moonlight and Rain" I can live with, but someone's been taking the mickey with "Tales Of The Pale And Silvery Moon After The Rain". This film is one of the best-regarded from Japan's golden decade for cinema, the 1950s. It's this and Kurosawa's Rashomon that put Japan on the map as far as movies were concerned.
The final word though I'll give to Mizoguchi himself, in a note to his scriptwriter, Yoda. (Yes, that's really his name.) "The feeling of wartime must be apparent in the attitude of every character. The violence of war unleashed by those in power on a pretext of the national good must overwhelm the common people with suffering - moral and physical. Yet the commoners, even under these conditions, must continue to live and eat. This theme is what I especially want to emphasize here. How should I do it?"