Big spoiler for UGETSU MONOGOTARI in this one. If you haven’t seen it, here it is — watch it!
I usually use a certain clip (starting at around the one hour twenty-three minute mark) when discussing long takes with students. Mizoguchi liked his long takes. Since UGETSU is a ghost story (and perhaps we should be getting in the mood for Halloween and/or the Day of the Dead), our director gets to use this technique, often associated with realism, in a more fantastical way.
Our “hero,” who may be a talented potter but is something of a louse, has been away from home for ages, dallying with a woman who turns out to be a ghost. Discovering this enchantment, he leaves, resolved to return to the wife and kid. In this scene he gets there, and Mizoguchi cuts to the inside of the barren, lifeless home as the potter arrives, enters, crosses the room, and exits.
Then we stay in the room and observe through the windows and doors as our man wanders disconsolately around the outside of the house, calling for his wife.
Finally he returns to the door he previously entered, and comes back in and now finds his wife and their baby with a little fire going, the whole place looking much cosier and more lived-in.
Of course, we’re in ghost story terrain again. The potter’s family are dead, but have risen from the grave to welcome him home. As in Edith Wharton’s short story Afterwards, the thing about ghosts is you only realize you’ve seen one, well, afterwards.
Somehow Mizoguchi, while creating a slight sense of the uncanny in this shot, convinces us to forget what we’ve seen (a deserted hovel) and accept a new reality without questioning it overmuch. It’s as if the long take, which we’re used to seeing as a representation of uninterrupted time, with no jiggery-pokery or sleight-of-hand or hanky-panky, can be used to overwrite itself (as in crackpot philosopher Daniel Dennett’s “multiple drafts” theory of consciousness), so that what we perceive to be true in the first half of the shot is replaced by a fresh, contradictory perception in the second half. We have to accept that the house is occupied because that’s what we’re seeing NOW, and we trust that better than our memory. Rather than immediately realising the supernatural has slipped back into the story, we just have a vague, head-scratching sensation of not-rightness. Unheimlich, in fact.
It’s also fun to think about all the busy Japanese stagehands redecorating the interior while the camera is busy looking elsewhere, including the tricky job of sliding a lit fire into position…