director Kenji Mizoguchi
I began this year with a plan to watch many of the “great films” that I had never seen, but then got sidetracked on an alternate path to watch “the worst” movies of all time. The alternate path has been more attuned to my present place in the world, but I have been feeling the need to return to my original, possibly more lofty goal.
I’d never seen Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, nor any of Mizoguchi’s other films. All I really knew was he was a big name and I was familiar with the titles of several of his movies. And that these were among the Japanese films that Janus originally brought to America and now reside on Criterion, both arbiters of what has come to be known as “World Cinema”, certainly the World Cinema that came to define the term.
Ugetsu is an elegantly shot feature, based on Ueda Akinari’s “Ugetsu Monogatari” (“Tales of Rain and the Moon”). Set in the 16th Century, the story follows the lives of two couples who work together in a small village as ceramic craftsmen. Genjurō (Masayuki Mori) is the master artisan who seeks money for his wife and child. Tōbei (Eitaro Ozawa), his assistant, seeks glory as a samurai. The war-torn province is both serious threat to their lives and their families, but also opportunity to cash in on their dreams.
At great risk, the two men manage to rescue their latest batch of ceramics and head out across the fog-strewn lake while fighting and piracy reign the night, heading to a larger town to try to sell their wares. Once in the city, with sales raging successfully, Tōbei runs off and buys armor, abandoning his friend and wife, seeking glory and wealth, which he eventually falls into not through honorable battle but through sneakier means. Genjurō, on the other hand, is seduced by a noble lady who admires his work and is keen to find a husband.
Both Genjurō and Tōbei’s wives suffer in their absence. Tōbei’s wife is raped and turned to prostitution. Genjurō’s honorable wife is murdered in the pestilence and famine that rule the land in his absence. Both men lose everything in the greedy profiteering that sends them. Genjurō’s story falls into the fantastic as his seductress turns out to be a ghost and when he finally escapes and returns home, he meets his wife’s ghost. Tōbei encounters his wife in a brothel, horrified by what has become of them, he discards all his armor and trappings, takes her back and returns to the village.
The film’s final moment, with the families again together, working more humbly in their old homes, has a classic beauty, as the child brings the mother’s grave some food, as her voice from beyond speaks (unheard) of her ever-presence.
I don’t know what all the writing about the film has been about, though I know that this film had many admirers in the United States like Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese. It seems that this film is possibly an admonition against the Japanese during WWII, those who sought personal achievement, either in wealth or power or glory, abandoning their families, their humility, and losing everything. As a moral tale, the lesson seems clear. But, coming as the film does in 1953, it seems a very reasonable interpretation.
It is indeed a lovely film.