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March 30, 2006

"Ugetsu" on DVD

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I just woke up to the fact that Kenji Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu" has become available on a Criterion DVD. That's a long-in-coming treat: Mizoguchi is one of the most underrepresented-on-DVD of the genuine filmmaking giants, and "Ugetsu" is one of his two or three best-known, and best-loved, movies. Me, I'm a bigger fan of "Sansho the Bailiff" than I am of "Ugetsu." But dickering over which is better is like arguing about whether "Hamlet" or "Lear" is greater -- a dumb waste of time. Why not enjoy both? In any case, "Sansho" isn't on DVD yet.


Back in the days of Standard Film History, Mizoguchi was considered to be, alongside Kurosawa and Ozu, one of the icons of the Japanese cinema. Each director's work had its own distinctive style and flavor; together they were thought to define the range of Japanese movies. Kurosawa's movies were usually dynamic and hyperdramatic; Ozu's were quiet, still, and melancholy. Mizoguchi's movies typically merged the qualities of fables with those of women's pictures. They were painful but transporting, in a poetic and magical way. And, oh baby, those tracking shots! I watched a lot of Mizoguchi in college and found many of the films both beautiful and draggy. But "Ugetsu" and "Sansho"? Perfection/rapture/bliss.

Criterion seems to have loaded the package with goodies, which is nice -- though, given the price Criterion is asking, maybe the film is better rented than bought. How does Criterion continue to get away with charging such outrageous prices?



posted by Michael at March 30, 2006


$32 for the DVD is a lot by today's standards. But don't foget that when videos first became commercially available, over 20 years ago, they routinely sold for as much as $75. Prices didn't come down for a number of years, until the movie studios finally realized that selling mass quantities of reasonably priced videos to consumers would be more profitable than selling far fewer numbers of costly videos to rental outfits.

Posted by: Peter on March 31, 2006 9:06 AM

I've watched many Criterion discs and, to date, have purchased exactly one -- for a Christmas gift. They're entirely too expensive. But cut them some slack: there's a limited market for fantastically produced DVDs of great films that most people don't watch, which I guess is why the cost is so high. Lord knows it would be fantastic to pay $20, instead of $40, for a two-disc set of Children of Paradise, complete with commentary and a cool little booklet of interviews and analysis and all that.

Posted by: Rodney Welch on March 31, 2006 9:58 AM

Peter -- I'd forgotten how expensive videotapes were at the outset! Still, we're pretty far into the DVD era ...

Rodney -- I own a half-dozen Criterions but only because I was once on some freebie lists. I haven't bought a one, despite being a bit of a film nerd. I understand that I'm gonna pay a little more for an art film with extras than for something from the bargain bin. But three times as much? Some of the bargain-bin stuff is pretty good, and has some nice goodies. I wonder if Criterion lifts the price so high just for the sake of prestige. It's hard to believe they wouldn't make more money if they charged less. I'd start buying, I know that. I think your price of 20 bucks sounds about right. Would you be a semi-regular buyer of Criterion products at 20 bucks?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 31, 2006 10:42 AM

Oh hell yeah. I think $20 is probably fair for almost ANY of their titles -- especially those crammed with documentaries and a commentary or two, in which you're sometimes getting six hours of watching. Locally (Columbia, SC) Criterion discs are sold at a local music store that also does a hefty trade in used DVDs -- I pray for the day I find a used Criterion. Never happens.

Posted by: Rodney Welch on March 31, 2006 11:09 AM

Coincidentally, I just watched Ugetsu again the night before you posted this. The film does indeed rock and rock hard.

Another Criterion release to look forward to is The Complete Mr. Arkadin, a multi-disk set featuring three count 'em three versions of the Orson Welles thriller. Hey Mamacita!

Arkadin is one of my favorite of his (or anyone's) films, and it makes a great-if-demented Christmas movie for those of us with a taste for the bizarre.

(The film was chopped up by its producers, hence the multiple versions.)

Posted by: Brian on April 1, 2006 12:05 AM

Brian - I confess I've never watched "Mr. Arkadin." It always sounded like a stinker, but now you've got me feeling I should catch up with it, darn it. (It'll take me away from my usual trashy-art-porn habits.) Did you explore the extras on the Ugetsu package? Worth the trouble?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 1, 2006 12:37 PM

Michael: "I confess I've never watched "Mr. Arkadin." It always sounded like a stinker, but now you've got me feeling I should catch up with it, darn it."

Remember, though, it's what highbrow types would call "flawed". (I admit my first viewing left me unimpressed.)

For one thing, it's all chopped up. Orson wanted the story to be told out of sequence, but his producers disassembled the entire film and reassembled it in chronological order, which really farks up the pacing, as you can imagine. Also, it's made on the cheap, like most of his European films, so certain technical aspects aren't as clean as they might've been. Thirdly, the ending doesn't quite come together.

But if you can look past all that I think you'll find a great film - or at least the raw materials of a great film - full of wit and heart and flamboyance and atmosphere galore and all those Wellesian goodies, plus simply oodles of great character performances from Akim Tamiroff, Michael Redgrave, Katherine Paxinou, Suzanne Flon, Mischa Auer, and others.

I'd say it's required viewing simply for the frog & scorpion speech, which has been quoted and requoted.

"Did you explore the extras on the Ugetsu package? Worth the trouble?"

Ah, I don't have the DVD yet. What I happened to watch the other night was a tape I made a while ago off TCM or some such place.

Posted by: Brian on April 1, 2006 4:50 PM

I've had many discussions with a friend about Criterion's gouging. Of course, I adore the care that goes into these editions. They have succeeded in branding themselves as high quality.

On the other hand, this limited edition business model ensures that the price for the dvd's will only increase over time instead of go down. (I found this to be true in the case of Solaris).

As for extras, fine, I'll pay a premium. But commercial DVD's are selling for around $10 these days. How many people (even cinema buffs) are willing to pay an extra $15 just to hear a (promotional) interview and a film prof drone on about the film's importance? Also, "digital remastering" is overrated and overpriced these days. Guess what, when blue-ray DVD's come out next year, DVD companies (and criterion) will be hawking digital re-re-mastered blue-ray DVD's. It's a gravy train and aficionados are its willing suckers.

No, I'd rather just buy the video without the extras. i suspect that Criterion is marketing to institutional buyers with deep pockets than individual fans. And that is regrettable.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on April 3, 2006 9:46 AM

Ugetsu can actually be had for around $26 at, and for around $24 at (both sites offer free shipping). In fact, dvdplanet routinely discounts all Criterions by 35%. Still not a bargain, to be sure, but I can live with paying ~$25 for a beautifully-produced package like Ugetsu. It comes with a rather large booklet and a full disc of extras, one of which is a feature-length documentary on Mizoguchi from director Kaneto Shindo. I haven't watched the doc yet, but the commentary, by Tony Rayns, is pretty good.

Posted by: Ron on April 3, 2006 9:56 AM

Actually, now that I look, is having a sale on many Criterion Collection discs through 4/10. They're up to 45% off, which puts many comfortably *under* $20.

It's at

Posted by: Ron on April 3, 2006 12:05 PM


I just saw "Sansho" a couple weeks ago; I found a video at a local library branch here in Seattle. What an amazing movie. I don't usually pay attention to technical aspects of movies - especially emotionally absorbing movies like this one but I couldn't help noticing how often the director used the wide medium shot. I'm not a film student but it seems like this approach let the director capture both the frantic action and the anguish of the main characters. You didn't have a lot of conversational switching head shots (where the camera becomes the eyes of the speaker in dialogue - I don't know the technical name for that techinque). It showed a lot of confidence in the actors. Anyway, what a beautiful movie. Now I've got to get "Ugetsu".

Posted by: das on April 6, 2006 3:20 AM

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