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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Ugetsu

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Country: Japan
Year: 1953

“Ugetsu is evocative of the Buddhist universe of Noh drama, where time is a movement of consciousness, memory is as tangible as the present, and the dead return to voice their grief or longing.”
Pacific Film Archive

“Ugetsu Monogatari is an exquisitely realized, serenely composed allegorical film on love, greed, and betrayal. Kenji Mizoguchi’s seamless fusion of poetic realism and surreal mysticism creates a rarefied atmosphere that is paradoxically beautiful and austere, redemptive and tragic, symbolizing Genjuro’s coexistence between the physical and supernatural realm – a reflection of the duality of the human soul.”
Acquarello, Strictly Film School

“Mizoguchi brilliantly uses long takes, moving camera, and shimmering tableaux to show the futility of the social and philosophical status quo, particularly as it related to women.”
Gary Morris, Bright Lights Film Journal

“…arguably film history’s greatest exponent of staging.”
David Bordwell

“…quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers.”
Jean-Luc Godard

“You must put the odor of the human body into images… describe for me the implacable, the egoistic, the sensual, the cruel… there are nothing but disgusting people in this world.”
Kenji Mizoguchi

Background

Kenji Mizoguchi was born in 1898, to a middle-class Tokyo family. When Mizoguchi was seven, several events transpired that would profoundly change his living circumstances, shape his worldview, and inform his later films.

After Mizoguchi’s brutally abusive father squandered the family’s savings on a failed get-rich-quick raincoat-sales scheme (?), they were forced to move into a smaller home in a lower-class neighborhood. Worse, as a result of the family’s financial troubles, Mizoguchi’s beloved sister Suzu was given up for adoption. Later, she was sold as a geisha.

And the litany continues: As a child, Mizoguchi developed chronic arthritis, which would cause him pain throughout his life. When he was seventeen, his mother died. Destitute and ill-equipped to raise children, Mizoguchi’s father gave up custody of his son.

With financial support from his geisha sister, Mizoguchi was able to enroll in art school. After some early efforts as a painter, advertising designer, and actor, he turned his attention to filmmaking in 1922.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Mizoguchi made over fifty films for the Nikkatsu studio. These comprised remakes of other director’s films, adaptations of literary works, and genre exercises. Most of these films are now lost. He was forced to leave Nikkatsu after an unpleasant incident in which his live-in prostitute girlfriend attacked him with a straight razor.

Yikes.

According to Mizoguchi himself, his career as a serious director did not begin until 1936, when he began making films that more accurately reflected his social concerns: Japan’s painful journey out of feudalism, and the systematic oppression of women in a male-dominated world.

Mizoguchi was known as a perfectionist and a tyrant on the set. He allegedly forced one actor to rehearse a scene seven hundred times, which seems a bit excessive. Actresses in bit roles were expected to read long lists of books as preparation.

His nit-picking obsession with historical accuracy was irritating to his collaborators, but was appreciated by Japanese film critics and audiences, who often viewed the films of his contemporary, Akira Kurosawa, as too modern and too westernized.

During the 40’s, Mizoguchi was forced to make more culturally appropriate (read: propaganda) films for the Japanese government. Despite this, his signature concerns remained intact and visible.

For Mizoguchi, fame outside of his native country did not arrive until the 1950’s. The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff, Ugetsu, Miss Oyu, and Street of Shame were all released in the West, and were all acclaimed. In the final years of his life, Mizoguchi’s films were championed by Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, and Cahiers du cinéma critic Jacques Rivette.

By the time of his death in 1956, Mizoguchi had directed 94 films. (According to IMDb, anyway; Wikipedia says Mizoguchi himself only remembered 75.)

Synopsis

Based on: Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Akinari Ueda. (An alternate translation is Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain, which I like even better.)

The opening titles are accompanied by that strange Japanese music, with semi-demented growling and caterwauling, dramatic flute flourishes, and seemingly random bursts of arrhythmic percussion.

Early Spring, 16th Century – A Period of Civil War…

Genjuro and his wife tie bundles of pottery to a cart.

Gunfire is heard in the distance. “They must be executing Shibata’s spies,” observes Genjuro. He has to get his pottery to market quickly. His wife wants to join him, but he orders her to stay put: “No telling what lawless soldiers are capable of.”

Genjuro’s neighbor Tobei is also embarking for the city, with hopes of becoming a samurai. “You can’t even handle a sword!” chides his wife, Ohama.

The two men leave, but the Wise Old Man (currently nameless) in the village laments their foolishness. “Quick profits made in chaotic times never last,” he observes. “They would do better to prepare for the coming war.”

Gojira – er, Genjuro returns, with a fistful of dollars (silver coins, actually). “That’s what I call trade!” he exults.

Back in the Big City, Tobei is begging a samurai for employment. “Accept a beggar as a vassal?” the samurai responds with indignation. “Get some armor first!”

Genjuro presents his wife, Miyagi, with a beautiful kimono. “Money is everything!” he exclaims happily, a statement which I’m guessing will resonate bitterly later in the film. Despite the fact that Shibata’s troops are massing on the border, Goji – er, Genjuro eagerly sets to making more pottery. After all: “War is good for business!” Just ask Halliburton. Or Volkswagen.

Tobei returns to the village, dejected at his failure to make it as a big-time samurai, and receives a proper tongue-lashing from Ohama.

Visions of silver coins dancing in his head, Genjuro frantically produces mountains of fiestaware, yelling at his wife, and ignoring his child (I’m not sure if it’s a boy or girl). “You’re a different man now,” observes Miyagi. Tobei is hired as an Associate Pottery Engineer. “I can’t wait to get my hands on that money,” he says, rubbing his hands together greedily. “War certainly changes people,” observes Miyagi as she fires the kiln.

Just as the last batch of pottery is ready for market, Shibata’s troops attack the village! “We’re taking all men into forced labor!” they announce. “If we lose this batch, I won’t get my share of the profits!” cries Tobei.

The villagers, including Sanjuro – er, Genjuro, flee into the forest. Tobei stays behind, and steals some armor from a sleeping soldier. Score! When the gunfire dies down a bit, Genjuro returns to the decimated village to check on his kiln. Too late; the fire has gone out. The batch is ruined. Oh, wait – no it’s not! The pottery is fine! Huzzah! Genjuro gathers the pots and sneaks out of town, miraculously avoiding the marauding troops. Genjuro, Tobei, and their wives load the pots on a skiff and row for the Big City.

“You and I will be rich men,” proclaims Genjuro, “and our wives will be wealthy women!” (ed. note: I doubt it.)

In the fog, another boat approaches. The skipper of the ghost boat is faring poorly, having barely survived a pirate attack. “If they see you,” he warns, “you will lose your cargo and your lives.” After this portentous announcement, he dies.

Understandably freaked out, Genjuro drops his wife and child (son? daughter?) off on the shore. “We’ll be back as soon as we have the money,” he tells them as he rows away.

In the Big City, Gogol – er, Genjuro – makes a killing on that damn pottery! He, Tobei, and Ohama can barely keep up with the orders.

A strange rich lady and her servant arrive and buy a whole Genjuro Pottery Starter Kit: vase, sake jar, cups, rice bowls, cocktail shakers, you name it.

“We live at Kutsuki Manor,” the woman’s servant informs Genjuro. “Please deliver it there.” Uh oh.

While Tobei is off spending his share of the profits at a two-for-one armor sale, his wife is captured by soldiers, and they treat her about as well as occupying soldiers generally treat unaccompanied women during wartime.

“Here’s some money for you,” one says, tossing a few coins on the ground when they are finished with her.

Genjuro is led to the spooky Kutsuki Manor to deliver the pottery ordered by spectral Lady Wakasa, whom you may recognize as “The Woman” from Rashomon. (And, just like in that film, she has those bizarre eyebrows painted high up on her forehead!)

She praises Genjuro’s handiwork, and he kneels and scrapes before the noble lady. Servants enter and exit silently. Wind chimes… uh, chime. Something is afoot.

Finally, Lady Wakawaka (or whatever) shows her hand: “Your talent must not be hidden away in some poor, remote village.” In fact, she says, howzabout if you just stay here and marry me? And – whether witchcraft is to blame, or just a garden-variety hard-on – Genjuro seems inclined to do just that.

WHAT THE SHIT IS UP WITH THOSE EYEBROWS??

That night, Lady Wasabi (or whatever) sings one of those atonal Japanese folk songs, and she is joined in a duet by the voice of her dead father. “He sounds so pleased,” says the Lady’s nurse. “He’s delighted at my lady’s impending marriage.”

ugetsu_bridalveil

And then it’s time for bed, by which I mean sexual intercourse.

Genjuro’s wife, meanwhile, is having a rough time of it, scavenging for food, avoiding bandits and soldiers, with gunfire and the shrieks of murdered children as an ever-present soundtrack.

Tobei finds a severed head (long story) and uses that to establish his street cred with the samurai.

He is rewarded with horses and vassals, and returns home in glory to impress his wife. Sadly, while Tobei was off seeking his fortune, Ohama became a highly-paid escort. She offers him a special hourly discount (for first-time customers only), but he is not pleased: “Without you, my success means nothing!”

Genjuro has taken up residence at Kutsuki Manor, and gets the standard “…yer staying at the old Kutsuki place? That place ain’t… normal…” line you’ve heard in a bazillion haunted house movies.

A priest (wearing what appears to be an Alaskan King Salmon on his head) warns Genjuro that Lady Wakasa is an evil spirit: “If you stay here any longer, you will die. Return home quickly.” Emboldened by some anti-ghost calligraphy on his abdomen, Genjuro tries to leave Lady Wakahashi, but you and I know that break-ups never go as planned, especially when you’re breaking up with a ghost.

Stripped to the waist and brandishing a sword, he crashes through the rice paper walls and flees into the night.

Arriving back in his destroyed village, Genjuro reunites tearfully with his wife and child.

“I’ve made a terrible mistake!” he wails. “My mind was warped!” (Oh, if I only had a nickel for every time I’ve tried that excuse…)

Father, son, and wife go to sleep, and all is right with the world. Or is it…?

In the morning, Genjuro cannot seem to find his wife, and I bet you can see this coming a mile away: “Miyagi was killed by soldiers of the defeated army,” explains the village Wise Man. “…she’d have been so happy to see you safe and sound.”

Next door, Tobei has also learned his lesson: He tosses his samurai getup in the pond and vows to be a better husband to his (violated, but still alive) wife.

Genjuro weeps at his wife’s tomb, and her voice comforts him: “Your delusion has come to an end. You are again your true self, in the place where you belong.” Then she helps him make pottery from beyond the grave, just like Patrick Swayze in Ghost. Sexy!

“You have finally become the man I had hoped for.”

What I Liked

The scene on the fog-shrouded lake was suitably ominous.

Lady Wakasa was genuinely spooky, and the anti-ghost temporary tattoos were a neat touch.

Miyagi’s closing speech from beyond the grave brought a tear to my eye.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

I have a feeling this is one of those films that I might appreciate more if I give it a few years and then watch it again. On the first viewing, however, I found Ugetsu a little flat. The characters are somewhat two-dimensional; I never felt drawn to them or engaged with their dilemmas. That’s somewhat to be expected in a morality fable, but, sadly, I didn’t find enough in the film’s plot or technique to keep me engaged, either.

For a ghost story, it’s not particularly scary. For a film set during a civil war, there’s not a lot of action. The cinematography was pretty at times, but not spectacular.

If you’re interested in traditional Japanese ghost stories, I would heartily recommend Kwaidan (or even its recent semi-sequel, Kaidan) as an alternative.

Should You See It?

Ugetsu is a widely-acclaimed film (see the pull quotes at the top), and it is certainly well-made and contains some compelling scenes. If you are looking to expand your Japanese film watching beyond Kurosawa and Ozu, the films of Mizoguchi are a valid next step.

Honestly, though, this week’s film didn’t excite me much. Out of the films we’ve watched in this series, Ugetsu would not be in my top ten. If you have a different take, please write in and tell me what I’m missing!

Next: Umberto D.

2 Comments

  1. Ugetsu is a film I watched because I wanted to try some other classic Asian cinema. I am glad I watched it and found much of it worth the time, but I could not help but feel that there was sub-context that I could never get.

    Jason’s view on this and mine really overlap here.

  2. The Japanese are wacky. I say this for having been born in Japan and brought up on Japanese stories in my youth (“Peach Boy” being a particularly good one). This doesn’t take into account the children’s story: “The Man and the Lump” (in his neck) and, of course, some of the most bizarre story telling in video games and anime.

    When “Ugetsu” crossed my path it was after three straight English speaking films so I was once again back to watching a film with subtitles and this film is based on some historic or classic stories swirling around Japan. So was this going to be fancifully wonderful or, uh, wacky? Was I back into “Beauty and the Beast” (which we saw in week 3 or 4 or something) or was this something akin to “The Seven Samurai?”

    The film starts out very similar to “TSS.” In fact, it could be the previous attack a few months prior to where “TSS” starts. Seems we’re back in 1600 Japan and the warring groups are cutting a swath through rural Japan. Killing/raping women, forcing men to work hard labor. We’ve even got a “samurai wannabe” – but, alas, that is where the comparisons fade and “Ugetsu” kicks into gear.

    Here’s the basic story as best as I can explain it. There’s a farmer, see, and he fires pots on the side. With the war coming he thinks he can possibly use it to his advantage and sell some of his wares and make some cash and provide for his lovely wife and child. With his co-farmer Tobei (the samurai wannabe) they head off to the big city. Tobei is unable to join a samurai clan and our hero (who’s name escapes me – just scroll up to read what Jason wrote) comes back with money and a kimono for his wife. They’re happy. He’s a success! Ah, but with success comes obsession. If he can get 3 silver pieces for just a few items…how much could he get for dozens of items!? He’s been bitten by the “money bug” and he’s sinking fast.

    Obsessing now with making and baking pots he drives his wife to distraction. She wants to go back to the simple farm life they had but, golly, he can’t do that. He’s got POTS TO SELL!

    When the evil clan overtakes the town they flee to the woods – after much arguing about leaving the f*cking pots. Still, he returns to find that the kiln is out, but the pots are wonderful. With new resolve he gathers the pots, his wife and child, Tobei and his wife and they set out in a boat.

    Let me pause here: So far, this story is done pretty conventionally. Nothing really wacky here…just wait…

    Warned by a dying sailor to stay away from the pirates they make land. Our hero tells his wife to go back to the farm and he’ll return in 10 days. Tobei, Tobei’s wife and our hero work their way to a bigger city where once they land they have great success in selling their wares. Golly, they’ll be rich in no time.

    Tobei, seeing a group of samurai remembers his quest to be a bad-ass spear wielding warrior and runs away from his wife. With money now he can buy the armor and the spear and be a samurai like he always wanted. His wife goes in search of him only to be raped by some evil samurai (a kids movie this is not).

    Our hero now alone, sells some pots to a woman who is in a regal get-up. She’s with her nurse and they want him to bring all the stuff to their manor down the hill. After packing up, he heads there – only to see some beautiful kimonos that would look wonderful on his wife. He even imagines her there.

    Once he gets to the manor…everything kind of shifts in tone to something a tad more ominous. The “Princess” tells him that she can make all his dreams come true…all he has to do is marry her (isn’t this what every woman says???). He wants money, he wants to sell pots, he’s been away from his wife and child for God knows how long and the Princess is beautiful and has those annoying smudges over her eyes. He doesn’t tell her the truth but then the voice of her dead father emanates from some mask or something and it’s been FORETOLD that he marry her (or something). The creepy nurse gives her blessing, tells them to get jiggy, they take a bath together and VOILA! They’re married.

    Tobei, a samurai now, wanders aimlessly looking for – I guess – samurai stuff to do when he comes across a famous general who is depressed and asks an underling to decapitate him. Which the underling does. Seeing an opportunity Tobei stabs the underling, killing him and takes the head of the general to the head samurai potentate (or something) who congratulates Tobei on his kill and gives him what he wants: A horse, some vassals and power.

    Heading out of the town, the vassals want to stay at a local brothel (told you this isn’t a kids story) and who is he to denying his entourage some nookie? When he goes in to take part in the festivities he runs into his wife! Seems after the rape she has been so shamed that she became a hooker. He admits that he only wanted to be a samurai for her. He wanted to become a success for her. But, obviously, he has failed (as do most men).

    As for our hero. Things are going horribly weird for him. Seems that this Princess and her talking mask (or whatever) are a figamentation of his imagination. Everyone is dead. What is he doing? What is he thinking?

    Meanwhile…stuck on the farm, our lovely wife and child attempt to wander to the big city to find him. They get attacked by evil samurai and are left for dead.

    Back at the manor, our hero has met a psychic (?) who says: “Dude, some bad sh*t is going to come raining down on your head.” (I’m paraphrasing.) “Let me help you.” He helps by writing words all over his body.

    When the hero comes back to the manor for more loving with the new wife, he admits that he’s already married, and the curse written all over him sends the Princess and the nurse into a frenzy.

    Tobie, back with his wife, throws away his samurai get-up and realizes that life is better lived back on the farm with the love of his life.

    Our hero wakes up surrounded by a burned out building. The local authorities tell him that everything he is talking about has been gone for years and that he’s crazy.

    Stunned by the events, he goes home to find his wife and child waiting for him. There is a lovely reunion and all seems right with the world…until the next morning when he awakes to find that it is just him and the boy. The wife had died some time ago…and he realizes the error of his greedy ways.

    WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THIS FILM:

    For some reason I liked nearly everything. Sure the acting was a bit over the top, but it sustained a weird ethereal sense throughout. There was something about it being steeped in reality with a hint of weirdness in the first half that didn’t make me want to laugh when things started getting a little wacky.

    All-in-all, this was enjoyable piece of film-making that I found very moving.

    WHAT I DISLIKED ABOUT THIS FILM:

    My only real complaint was that the print that was used had some major scratches at some points but that’s a minor gripe.

    OVERALL:

    Really very enjoyable. Surprisingly so for some reason.

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