Classical cinema: New series - It could be the greatest film ever made

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PERHAPS if it had always been called Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain it would be better known. At least that gives a hint of ghostliness. Yet that title could have sounded exotic or obscure; we do not really expect to be bowled over by the poetry or ceramics of 16th-century Japan. In America, the film is called just Ugetsu - maybe that one word seemed to some distributor to be in the same league as Godzilla! Something like "Ugetsu - Was She Dead or Alive!" We call it Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), and 45 years after it was made, it is timeless, beautiful, heartbreaking. Just because so few of you knew it, and just to give Citizen Kane some relief from the burden that may be its obituary, let's propose that Ugetsu Monogatari is the greatest film ever made.

We are in a Japan of lakes, forests and small cities - inexplicable wars rule the day, and the ordinary people are the helpless victims of bands of soldiers. Yet men and women still plan for the future. Genjuro is a potter, perhaps a fine one; yet he wants to earn money to make himself, his wife and their child more secure. He has a brother, Tobei, who helps him, but Tobei - a natural coward - dreams of being a great warrior. In their ambitions, the brothers abandon their wives, Genjuro goes to sell his wares and is taken up by the beautiful Lady Wakasa. By chance and accident,Tobei becomes renowned as a samurai. But they have their comeuppance.

It's a simple enough story, and you must not expect ostentatious spectacle. Instead, you need to do just the obvious thing - though it is not easy - which is to watch and feel what the camera shows. Ugetsu has a serene, lyrical yet tactful camera style in which simple movements link vital things together, and in which movement embodies the soaring or sinking of the soul. It is a film conceived and shot in deep context: as a woman staggers and maybe dies in the foreground, her child crying on her back, you see the bandits who did the deed in the background, bickering over the food they stole from her.

As Genjuro becomes infatuated with the Lady Wakasa, we see them together, bathers in a rock pool. The camera pans away diagonally with the stream, and its image dissolves into an exactly similar pan that moves over fields to find the couple picnicking in an open meadow. Jean-Luc Godard said of that moment, "Only masters of the cinema can make use of a dissolve to create a feeling which is here the very Proustian one of pleasure and regrets."

So, I am asking you to look at dissolves, pans, depth of field? Yes. Begin with those things, and then notice how the imagery begins to accrue and become something like Lear or The Winter's Tale when Genjuro comes home from his travels and his betrayals, finds an empty home, but then in a single pan the dead room comes to light and life and harmony again - for just one evening. For he has become acquainted with ghosts.

Don't demand that Ugetsu amaze you or hit you over the head. Read the film. Look at it. Hear the music and the sounds - the faraway shots, the songs, the laughter of an enchantress. Perhaps it is only a great film, a very good one. Why hobble films with these colossal labels? But if you like it, notice that the National Film Theatre is doing its proper business in offering a season of films by the director of Ugetsu, Kenji Mizoguchi. He lived from 1898 to 1956 - you see, he was dead already long before modern movies had begun. He was spared that. He made over a hundred films, not all of which survive. But there are 15 or so that make it clear that Mizoguchi was and is one of the decisve figures in film - like Bresson, Bunuel, Renoir, Ophuls, Dreyer, and a few others. To quote a line from the film itself, "I never imagined such pleasures existed"; or that they could be haunting so long.

'Fierce Beauty: Mizoguchi the Master': NFT, SE1 (0171 928 3232), to 28 Feb.