Adaptation · Criterion Collection · Drama · Japan · Mystery

#309 Ugetsu (1953)

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#309 Ugetsu

1953 // Japan // Kenji Mizoguchi

Criterion Collection (LINK)

The Ghost, the Bad and the Women

Ugetsu has been praised as the masterpiece of Japanese cinema ever since it was released and won the Silver Lion Award at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, and alongside with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), it’s the film accounted for drawing the international spotlight to the post-WWII Japanese cinema. As highly regarded as it has always been, regrettably to say, it’s not my favorite film by Mizoguchi. I do hugely admire the film’s mystical ambiance, the fable-structured ghost story, the abiding theme of women’s sacrifice for the success (or non-success) of the ineffectual men, and above all, the flowing camera work and the impeccable art direction. However, it does not strike me as poignant and competent as The Life of Oharu (1952) or Sansho the Bailiff (1954) with the latter as my favourite. Still Ugetsu elegantly blends the lyricism of ghost story and the realism of world cruelty, and Mizoguchi filmed it exquisitely as a scroll painting and read it like a poetry.

The film itself is inspired or loosely adapted from three short stories, two from the “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”, a Japanese collection of nine mystery stories written by by Akinari Ueda in 1776, while the last one originated from the Guy de Maupassant’s “How He Got the Legion of Honour“. The western idea is transposed seamlessly into the eastern mythology, yet Ugetsu is still discernible as its two separate narrative threads. The story takes place in Omi Province during the civil war in the 16th century Japan. Two families are immediately introduced after a panning shot of the provincial field with firing gun shot barely audible in the background. Potter Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is preparing to leave his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their young son for selling his pottery works in the city, an attempt to gain profits during wartime. Tobei (Sakae Ozawa), Genjuro’s neighbour and his brother-in-law, rashes out from the house and, against his wife Ohama’s (Mitsuko Mito) desperate objection, request to go along into the city in contemplation of being a samurai. Genjuro shortly returns with an alluring sum of money whereas Tobei reemerges like a beggar after failed to be a samurai since he has no amour nor spear.

Ugetsu foregrounds the obsessive desire of human, mainly men, for success and prosperity, thereby their behaviour be driven by their own pride. Tobei, a comical and almost pitiful character, has been living in his own dream of fantasy. The war’s brutality exacting on the villagers (men are seized, women are raped, house is ransacked) and, most importantly, the existence of his own wife are overshadowed by his aspiration to fame. Indeed with a twist of fate and dumb luck, he grasps the opportunity and eventually accomplishes his goal, yet upon reuniting with Ohama unexpectedly in a brothel, he realises the cost Ohama paid in exchange for his success. The origin of Tobei is developed from the protagonist in Guy de Maupassant’s novel who has longed for a medal, yet the story followed is completely different. Mizoguchi and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda had to adopt a happier ending for Tobei’s story as demanded by the studio, indeed the poignancy is hugely reduced after a sort of reconciliation at the very end.

In contrary, Genjuro’s story is more heart-rending in the form of tragedy, and it’s this part of story that features ghostly appearance which superlatively render the realistic tone with an additional sense of mythical. Genjuro, after tasting the wealth brought by selling his pottery, immediately engrosses himself in the handiwork even under the threat of the incoming Shibata’s army. Genjuro’s works are miraculously undamaged in the kiln on the night of the army’s attack. Thereafter, together with all the goods and his own and Tobei’s family, they resort to a boat for transportation across the Lake Biwa into the city. The foggy scene of the rowing boat in the Lake, meticulously staged and structured with a sense of eeriness, is the superb example of utilising the artificiality in studio shooting to create the out of the world ambiance. In fact it subtly foreshadows the succeeding appearance of the ghost of Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo), who subdues Genjuro with her appearance and flattery on his pottery.

Arguably Lady Wakasa is the “antagonist” of the film, she offers prosperity and pleasure which Genjuro irresistibly falls for, and easily we can categorie her as the “bad/evil” ghost. But paradoxically, she’s also the victim of war invoked by men’s greediness for power. Her clan, alongside with the Kutsuki mansion where Genjuro spending the time with her (or as he thinks he is), are killed and destroyed before she knew what love is. She, like Miyagi and Ohama, are women sacrifice. The appearance of Lady Wakasa, including the costumes, her make-up and facial expression, recalls the traditional noh play. As a matter of fact, the Kutsuki mansion is staged, lighted and shot like a noh stage. Fumio Hayasaka’s music interweaves the noh flute and percussive sound to underscore the scenes. Magnificently and intimidatingly portrayed by Machiko Kyo, Lady Wakasa is simultaneously daunting and sympathetic. But the spectators’ compassion is undeniably clung to the dedicated mother Miyagi who, after being robbed by the soldiers for food, would only reappear in the ending when the prodigal husband returns home.

The scene starts with Genjuro entering the unilluminated, abandoned house searching for his wife and son, the camera continues to follow him going out the back door and going back to the entrance in one shot with only slight panning, and suddenly we realise Miyagi is sitting inside the house, which is empty a few seconds ago, and preparing food for her husban. Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography is without a doubt superlative in motion and framing. With the utilisation of the camera movement and staging, we immediately understand the nature of Miyagi’s appearance. Being the opposite of Lady Wakasa, she is the “good” ghost as she remains to protect her family. Miyagi’s voice, audible as a soliloquy, would be lastly heard over the images of the reformed, honestly working husband and the Tobei’s family, as well as her own grave, in which she expresses happiness as well as regret on the final outcome. Ugetsu is mesmerizing in its poetic illustration by the craftsmanship of Mizoguchi, one may find the art of Genjuro’s pottery alludes to the filmmaking, perhaps it’s an intentional metaphor as women sacrificing for men’s pursuit of arts, you know Mizoguchi understands deeply of women ever after he was stabbed by one in the back, literally.

Film Rating: 4.5/5
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