Charles Foster Kane struts, Michael Corleone broods, and “Scottie” Ferguson sweats himself into a serious case of vertigo. But of all the truly divine moments in cinema, too few address the female side of self-destruction fully and majestically. Which is all by way of saying that Japan’s Kenji Mizoguchi is more than simply pantheonworthy (and superior to his better-known peers Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu). He’s absolutely necessary.
Almost pathologically devoted to presenting women in crisis, Mizoguchi is responsible for a string of devastating ’50s classics: The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff and this one, which kicks off Film Forum’s two-week run of his six most essential films. Ugetsu is an excellent place to start for newbies, as it encapsulates the director’s exquisite style, a perfect match of breathtaking technique and heartrending performance. The setting is a postapocalyptic feudal countryside, where undisciplined soldiers raid villages and no female is safe. Potter Genjuro (Mori) gets the idea to exploit the situation for mercenary profit; his wife (Tanaka, Mizoguchi’s longtime muse and arguably never better) will almost certainly suffer in his absence.
Contemporary audiences will thrill to Ugetsu’s prefiguring of so much black-mopped J-horror: On Genjuro’s journey, he encounters a gorgeous widow (the riveting Kyo) who turns out to be less than alive. But note how Mizoguchi makes even this spooky interlude, captured in cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa’s ravishing long shots, into a feminist minimasterpiece, tinged with ineffable sadness. Amazingly, all of Mizoguchi’s films offer such moments—and such tender, tragic women. An all-time classic. (Open Fri; Film Forum.) — Joshua Rothkopf