What follows is the first in a series of essays produced in conjunction with The Cineastes.
“Money is everything. Without it life is hard, and hope dies.”
A series of morality tales expertly wound together into an accessible and interesting fully formed story, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari examines the nature of greed and unreasonable aspirations from several different angles. A regular feature on most top ten lists, Mizoguchi’s 1953 parable based drama is a genuine great of the cinema, proving both thought provoking yet accessible. As someone who is largely oblivious to most Asian cinema I approached the film with caution and bewilderment, yet found the film to be incredibly inviting and one of the true greats of cinema history.
The film centres around Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) a lowly farmer who produces pottery in a small village in 16th century Japan. Much to the chagrin of his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), Genjurô takes advantage of the raising prices of his wares, and heads to a nearby city to exploit their potential. His friend and neighbour, and town fool Tobei (Eitarô Ozawa) tags along, hoping to realise his ambition of joining the ranks of the samurai. Tobei’s spouse, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) accompanies him to prevent this from happening. What follows is a series of events that, however minor the decisions involved may seem, leads to everlasting repercussions for the group. Through his decision to follow his dream of becoming a samurai, Tobei sees his wife forced into a life of prostitution, and when Genjurô is given the opportunity to lead the life he has always aspired to, it is achieved with the life of Miyagi being sacrificed.
As the film opens the core protagonists lead a seemingly content existence. Genjurô and Tobei are ambitious, but not in a particularly dangerous way. When presented with opportunity, after the success of the initial trading experience, Genjurô changes, and the lengths to which he will go to satisfy his ambition are hinted at. Not in a manner unlike Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it is these urges that drive the narrative forward and lead them to the plot point that twists the whole story in its dreaded direction. At times the attitude towards aspiration, and the way in which the lives of those whom aim for a higher quality of life are affected, could be seen as patronising or of a biased political leaning. That is to say, that in the eyes of higher society, the likes of Genjurô and Tobei (re-the everyman) should never achieve the heights they aim for, and the film may be referring to this, albeit directly or indirectly. Initially at times it felt as though the film is warning preventing the viewer from attempting to change their lot in life. Alas with a more thorough understanding of Mizoguchi I have strayed away from that attitude towards those particular overtones, and feel that it is possibly a simple coincidence.
The Shakespeare reference is somewhat appropriate in more than one sense. Ugetsu is an incredibly theatrical experience, as is Mizoguchi a very theatrical director. At the core of the film is a performance led human drama. The actors move the story forwards, the camerawork, despite its excessiveness and effort comes second, alongside the likes of editing and other cinematic devices. That’s not to downplay the success of these other devices, they are used incredibly, but one needs to stress just how important the actor’s performances are.
Each of the characters hold certain traits, and it is these qualities that the movement of the story is reliant on. When we meet Genjurô he is forthright, stubborn and his mind is largely concerned with the success of his business. On the other hand, Miyagi is the archetypal doting wife. While she does question her husband’s motives at one point (at the behest of the town chief), by and large she is pretty much willing to do as is expected of her. This vulnerability and sense of trust is all the more effective an emotional anchor later on in the story as a result of this early characteristic trait. Tobei, as briefly mentioned above, is the town fool with aspirations far beyond those within realistic reach. His wife Ohama is brash and bold, and very much a “Mizoguchi Woman”, with her attitude being perhaps her only weapon when she reaches her eventual downfall. Mizoguchi was known for his powerful females, something that stemmed not only from his real life love for women, but from a bizarre logistical issue; there was already a filmmaker working at the same studio as him that had a monopoly on male lead films, so Mizoguchi was given the task of working with women. It was a commercial endeavour that led to one of Mizoguchi’s closest associated auteur traits being established. Mizoguchi’s encounter with a prostitute by the name of Yuriko Ichijo also ingrained a level of respect for women far outside of what the average filmmaker would have experienced; for reasons unknown Ichijo slashed the back of the Mizoguchi, who wasn’t coy about his fondness for working girls. Despite the reasons behind the genesis of the “Mizoguchi Women”, the sheer power of gender within Mizoguchi’s work cannot be denied.
Ugetsu is preceded by a very slow and assured title sequence, which is accompanied by an unsettling percussion led score. Over the top of this beat lies a strange wailing sound, which comes to make sense later on. We discover that the sound is closely reminiscent of the sonancy of Lady Wakasa’s father, the head of the Wakasa Dynasty, and his declaration of apparent blessing. Further research reveals that the opening piece of music is based on that of Japanese court music, which is yet another ironic spin on the role of class within the picture. The credits are followed by an explanation of the literary origins of the of the picture, in the form of Akinari Ueda’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain, an Guy de Maupassant’s How he got the Legion of Honor. The use of the three stories as nothing more than a simple grounding for the narrative provokes thoughts as to the ingenious in its execution, while at the same time displaying the role of artistic license within Mizoguchi’s formula for making pictures. The three stories are weaved together decisively, with Mizoguchi taking the necessary elements from each of the stories before adding his own material to bring the whole thing contextually relevant. One must bear in mind that the promise made by Mizoguchi in this opening post-credit statement was intended as an access point and explanation to the viewer. At the time of production such a film would have been deemed as outmoded or irrelevant. An understanding of the source material helps explain the meaning of the title too, with Ugetsu literally translating as Moon-Rain, with the emphasis being on the separatist notion of the title, as per the route that the film would take; the film is an experience of splits and divides, be it on the interpersonal relationship between the viewer caught between the differing attitudes towards the initial decision of the four main protagonists on how to handle trading during the war, or the more overt and obvious separation involved with the concept of war, or indeed the difference between the living and the dead (Ugetsu is a ghost story after all). The nature of the seamless branching between the real world and the fantasy world would also fit in with rules the title suggests.
A sprawling panning shot falls immediately after the opening credit sequence, giving an insight into the scale and nature of the environment within which our four main characters reside. The slow drawn out shot clashes with the hectic nature of the later scenes set within the city, and is an early attempt to draw a line between distinctive opposing forces. We are immediately made aware of the core characteristics of the four protagonists through the first scene alone. Genjurô goes against the advice of his wife Miyagi and heads out into town, in spite of the danger that lies ahead, while Tobei and Ohama bicker as he makes claims of his impending greatness. It’s incredibly basic but very effective. The audience is instantly aware of what it is that drives each character, and could even make presumptions as to where these characteristics may head. When Genjurô returns bearing silver, not even the cautious words of the town chief can prevent the inevitable direction in which his path will take, and initially even Miyagi seems to be of this attitude. We see the foundations of greed take heed very quickly, and it is this moment that is the catalyst of the narrative flow. In a similar manner, Tobei’s encounter with the mocking samurai lights the fuse to the path in which Ohama and his story will take. Greed and ambition are staples of film prose, with the likes of Bresson, Murnau and Welles all utilising these themes in their most famous works. Of course aspiration was rife (and still is) in society with cinema serving as a part of the machine that Ugetsu actually criticises, provoking its audience to aim for something far out of their reach. The celebrity culture of now shows that this has possibly never been more prevailant.
In spite of the overwhelming importance of the effect of greed and opportunity on Genjurô’s state of mind Mizoguchi goes to extreme efforts to show how deep his love for his family is. The notion that the profiteering is to support his family is constantly encouraged, and we are never unsure as to the reasons behind his craving for success. Not only is this is used to great effect later on in the film, but its also placed as a strong emotional grounding for the viewer. Perhaps the most important scene in the entire film, and a turning point characteristically for Genjurô comes in the shape of the one whereby Genjurô and Miyagi are working on a fresh batch of pottery to sell before the advancing war reaches their shores. Frustrated at the time it is taking for the production to be completed, Genjurô lashes out at Genichi, the couple’s son. This is the first sign of the hostility that the greed is bringing with it, and yet another indication of where the film is heading, alas the reason for the scene’s importance lies much later on in the film; when Genjurô returns home from his journey and discovers that Miyagi is dead he eventually returns to his old life, in which he produces pottery alone. The way in which he spins the pottery wheel, which was previously Miyagi’s job is very moving, with the location proving to be an emotional hanging point for Ugetsu.
Mizoguchi was known for his sweeping camerawork and long takes, and no better is this displayed than during the mass emigration from the protagonist’s village when soldiers raid it. As the villagers flee into the woods they are accompanied by a very ambitious camera, which adds a depth and sense of scope somewhat lacking in the general cinema of the time. As a result of this the film seems like a huge project, which jars, albeit pleasantly with the intimate nature of the earlier scenes. Bear in mind that prior to this moment we, the viewer, hadn’t actually left the central locale, we had only heard of the travels of Genjurô and Tobei, so this sweeping movement of locations is made to feel all the more impressive. With the raid on the village we are exposed to evidence of Genjurô’s further downward spiral, when he is seemingly more relieved to find that his pottery hasn’t been destroyed as opposed to his family’s well being. Again, it forms the growing list of subtleties that add up to create a complex picture of Genjurô as a character.
The most well known sequence in Ugetsu is the section on the boat. A metaphorical crossing over into another world, the boat scene is the dramatic crux-point of the storyline. In the scene we are reminded of the male characters motivations and the women’s reservations, but unlike the opening section the decisions made literally and immediately effect all involved. As a result of Genjurô’s decision not to turn back, Miyagi begins her own journey, on which she will meet her fate, and as a result of Tobei’s stubbornness to carry on in the hope of being a samurai Ohama is put into the position that she needs to be in to reach her fate. In a way it is the women who are most personally affected, and this outlines the reasons why, in that their hearts won’t allow them not to answer to their husbands. The execution of the scene is terrifically handled, with the sound of Ohama’s singing broken by the sight of the boat in the distance. It’s incredibly tense, and atmospherically shot. While the boat scene may be the dramatic crossroads for Ugetsu, it’s the following scene that for me stands as the emotional one. Admittedly more effective on a second viewing, the sight of Miyagi and Genichi waving goodbye to Genjurô from the banks of the river, the camera focussing solely on their plight as opposed to the others in the boat proves effectively eerie and all knowing upon repeat viewings. It might be worth pointing out that the actual boat journey isn’t actually shown, despite the forewarning of the dying sailor. Cinematically this curve ball works, if not only to serve towards the role of fate and inevitability on the fates of our protagonists. Effectively, based on what we see on screen, there was no actual danger on the waters, thus suggesting that Miyagi needn’t have worried about any, and continued on the journey with the others. It’s an enticing notion, but one that is never fully explored.
The theory outlined above, of a fate-like necessity also hangs over the chain of events that happen between Tobei and Ohama. The path that each of their lives take due to Tobei’s ambition rests on each little detail to get exactly where it needs to be. The manner in which Ohama’s rape is handled shows a creative and appropriate approach to not only the cultural context that the film was made in, but also the poetic way in which the film unfolds. Such a shocking and disturbing event is out of character for the film at that point, but the manner within which it is shown, whereby the focus is on the discarded sandal and the financial transaction serves to make Ohama’s scenario all the more effective. For me successful filmmaking stems from what a filmmaker can imply with as little effort as possible, as opposed to forcing the story out onto the screen. The accompanying monologue to the post-rape Omaha scene serves to remind of the influence of the stage on Mizoguchi’s film.
Many a scholar has noted that with Ugetsu Mizoguchi seemingly manages to blend the world of reality with that of a fantasy-plane seamlessly, and while I wouldn’t disagree with that point entirely, there are definite shifts in style during the more ominous of scenes. Granted these differences are hardly as varied as the likes of Gilliam or F.W Murnau’s fantastical moments, but the slight shift is still noticeable and incredibly effective. The most notable example would be on Genjurô’s journey to Wakasa manor, whereby almost every frame of every shot features at least one obstruction in the space between camera lens and foreground. It’s a subtle irritant that manages to be very compelling and set the exact tone well. It’s not only the cinematography that changes during the scenes involving Lady Wakasa (portrayed by Machiko Kyô of Rashomon fame), but the character of Genjurô. He shifts from the arrogant and ambitious face of the wartime profiteer that he has become over the past hour and is instead ponderous and unassuming. Perhaps he is attempting to reflect the intentions of Lady Wakasa, knowing that his wife and child will be the ones that suffer, or maybe he is actually questioning his own sanity? An earlier moment in which he imagines Miyagi whilst looking for a komodo is the first indication that he is losing his mind, although that too could be attributed to hopeful meanderings. Genjurô’s new found selfish nature returns rather abruptly when Wakasa plays to his one true weak spot; his ego. She compliments his handiwork, knowing full well that a way to a mans heart is through flattery and adulation, with the latter being especially prevalent when it comes to Genjurô. Having secured him where she wants him, Lady Wakasa pounces towards Genjurô with a proposal of marriage, her pale complexion complemented by a pair of forehead mounted dark spots, reminiscent of the devil himself. What follows initially appears to be a dance of sorts, but is in fact a ritual, accompanied by the spirit of Lord Wakasa. At this point any doubts as to the role the supernatural plays in this story are put to one side. After the ritual, there is a moment whereby the audience is strategically reminded of Miyagi; Genjurô is sleeping as Lady Wakasa watches over him. This scene references one seen earlier on, wherein Genjurô and Tobei sleep as their wives watch over them. It is also echoed in one of the final scenes where the spirit of Miyagi dotes over a sleeping Genjurô.
As the film is effectively a morality tale on the dangers of ambition its only right that we get to see our protagonist achieve his dream, if only in a fleeting sense. The montage that portrays Genjurô bathing in an exotic natural spring, and relaxing in a beautiful scenic landscape serve to provide an insight to Genjurô as to the life he thought he always wanted. The morph-like editing involved in this sequence suggests yet a further emphasis on the otherworldly nature of this aspect of the film. It’s interesting to see how these scenes of idyllic luxury are played off against the plight of Miyagi suffering due to Genjurô’s act. We cut from the beautiful landscape of the open field inhabited by Genjurô and Wakasa to the dank, dark ruins that Miyagi is using as to shelter in from the rampaging soldiers. A claustrophobic location and tight shots suffocate the viewer and jar their view. Again, it’s incredibly effective, and even more impressive with its subtlety. It harks back to the title, we see two distinct halves joined together, sheer joy and unbridled pain. When Genjurô realises what has become of him, after a second encounter in the Komodo store seen earlier, he is struck by guilt and attempts to relinquish his mistakes, and in turn his own sanity. As a result of this last ditch attempt Genjurô inadvertently pushes himself further into madness, and as he confronts the ghostly apparition this is signified by the gradual decent into darkness on screen as candles are put out and shadows take course. It is heavily ironic that when Genjurô awakens the next day from his insanity driven slumber he loses the money that he actually made on the trip, as a result of being accused of stealing from a local temple. Laying beside the long formed ruins of Wakasa manor, the local townsmen that come across his sleeping body don’t believe the story of Lady Wakasa and simply beat him and take his money.
While the story of Tobei and Ohama isn’t particularly different in tone, there are distinct differences with the way in which the characters handle their station. Rather than being victimised through her ill fortune, Ohama turns hers to a positive note, and effectively it is Tobei that ends up the bigger victim in this situation. Granted their outcome is much more positive than that of Genjurô and Tobei, but the emotional implications of the events run just as deep. For me Eitarô Ozawa’s turn as Tobei is the highlight of the film, in terms of performances. The way in which he can shift from likeable clown to unpleasant snake (literally crawling through grass on his stomach at one point) is to be admired, with the point in which he finally becomes a samurai being his highpoint (diagetically and non-diagetically). As a result of the believability of this realisation the revelation as to the fate of Ohama is made all the more impressive. The slow reveal as to the identity of the woman shroud in black shadow must read as fairly obvious to the viewer, but the impact of Tobei’s revelation still hits hard. Personally I found the reveal to be incredibly effective too, I felt Tobei’s frustration on a very personal level, no doubt due to the performance of Ozawa. The nature of the reveal of the circumstance, and the nature of the circumstances themselves hark back to Shakespeare, with the fable-nature of the morality at its most literal during this section of the film. Upon their return home Tobei denounces the way of the samurai, symbolically disarming himself by throwing his sword and armour into the river, before finally returning to work.
The film closes with Genjurô returning home to Miyagi, oblivious to her fate. As an audience we also are unaware of her definitive fate; we see her attacked by wayward soldiers and fall to the ground, but we never see beyond what we now know to be her final struggle. Accustomed to the nature of the film, our first hint that all is not well comes with the famous scene in which Genjurô paces around his empty house. On his first entry to the house it is empty, yet having left the house and re-entered it he discovers Miyagi cooking and Genichi sleeping. The house is a different picture entirely upon this second visit, with the dark, battle-damaged hovel of before replaced by a welcoming, homely vision. While this clearly otherworldly in some respect its not actually made fully clear as to whether the scene is another insight into Genjurô’s insanity, or if it is another ghost-led vision. That the scene is told in one shot is to be admired, and it makes for a wonderful and memorable piece of cinema, with the depth of field an example of Mizoguchi mastery of the technique. I adore the way in which the luxuries of this “imagined” scene seem so trivial when compared to the frivolities experienced by Genjurô during the scenes with Lady Wakasa. For example Genjurô seems overwhelmingly pleased by the simple pleasure of sake and the basic food offered to him, which suggests to the viewer that after his experience with Wakasa he is much more complacent and his ambition has settled.
The final scene of the film involves Genjurô’s realisation and acceptance of Miyagi’s fate, and is incredibly moving. Despite him blaming himself for what has become of Miyagi, her spirit vocally beckons him, comforting his guilt. Her revelation, that Genjurô is finally the man that she hoped for him to be proves incredibly moving, and is complemented perfectly by the final shot of Genichi placing a bowl of rice upon her monument.
The other guys that make up The Cineastes have also done pieces on Ugetsu, find them at the following links -
Adam Cook at The Bronze
Amber at Nouvelle Vague Cinematheque
Crap Monster at YGG’noise
Doc Oz at Cine-diagnosis
Edouard Hill at Allan Gray’s Imagination
Jake at Filmbound
Joshua D. at Cinephile Cafe
Josh Wiebe at Octopus Cinema
Matthias Galvin at Framed
T at t.252.am
Tom Day at Serious About Cinema
Witkacy at Inertial Frame