Ugetsu: The Dangers of the Free Market through a Mystical Doorway

Dir. ~ Kenji Mizoguchi
Original story ~ Akinari Ueda
Screenplay ~ Matsutarô Kawaguchi & Yoshikata Yoda
Cinematography ~ Kazuo Miyagawa

I guess to start I will simply state that the fact that this film, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), was an extremely exciting choice for me (thanks Matthias). I have a little experience with the rich history of Japanese cinema, a little Kurosawa here some Ozu there (as well as a healthy sprinkling of newer Asian films), but I really haven’t truly had a chance to dig seriously into the wealth of amazing films coming out of Japan. So, I’ve had an increasing interest and thanks to my friends at the Cineastes, I had reason to dive in headfirst.

I (plot and themes)
Initially I was incredibly interested in the premise of the film, a somewhat unordinary ghost film, and the Godard quote regarding the Mizoguchi on the back of the criterion also peaked my interest, and I wasn’t disappointed. Similarly to some of the Asian cinema that I have seen thus far, and also similarly to the films of Godard, Mizoguchi seems to abstract his characters using them as tools to propagate his ideals. While his characters, as well as the aforementioned, prove to be interesting and relatable characters who (making the message well received), the primary utilization is in setting up a sort of intriguing moral tale.
In the film, which is based heavily upon a few short stories (included for viewer/reader pleasure in the criterion release), the viewer is presented with two married couples, Genjurō (Masayuki Mori) his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Tōbei (Eitarô Ozawa) his wife Ōhama (Mitsuko Mito). In the beginning Genjurō is introduced as an eager entrepreneur running leaving his family at home to go in search of wealth and prosperity. His actions are, of course in a veiled way, for his family, however he is quick to fall into the trap of monetary success’s tenancy to lead to a slight ‘amnesia’ of sorts, and it’s obvious that Miyagi is really not interested in the monetary gains as much as she is in the value of familial stability (plus she was warned by the village ‘wise man of sorts’). Conversely, while Genjurō seems to have it all together and have his ambitions fairly well thought out (even though they are spiraling quickly out of his control), the male figure of our second couple Tōbei, is a ragged man ruled by his seemingly selfish ambition, to become a samurai. From the onset Tōbei is shown as an almost slapstick failure of a man, fully willing to leave Ōhama behind in pursuit of the notoriety and prosperity that comes with being a successful samurai, and Ōhama merely wants him to put aside his foolish ambitions in pursuit of a modest yet happy life.
Set in a period of civil war in Japan, the village in which the two families live is under attack and the two families narrowly escape only to be consumed by a lilting fog. As they slowly boat through the fog, they meet come in contact with a bad omen, a ‘ghost’ of sorts, At this point Genjurō decides that he must leave his wife and child behind (under the mistaken idea that they would be safer there). However, this fog seems also to be metaphorical because it is at this point that everyone’s ambitions and connections to their families become hazy. As they all emerge from the actual fog, they seem to (quickly or gradually depending on the character) lose sight of what in actuality matters to them. In reality only the women have clear vision of what would be viewed as ‘moral’ ambition, however at this point, the turn of the story, everything gets truly out of control.
Having made it out of the fog and into the city, where “war is good for business,” Genjurō, Tōbei and Ōhama are selling off the pottery that they had risked their lives to smuggle out. Quickly though they are separated. Once Tōbei has enough money for the armor he needs he immediately splits, Ōhama running after him and becomes lost (and quickly so does her honor and innocence), and Genjurō is seemingly lured and stolen away by a mysterious and mystical figure, who Mizoguchi cleverly has seemingly invisible to anyone else (with the way she seems to glide into the picture, have her companion say a few words, only to Genjurō and they glide away) as well as not showing the viewer her face right away in ominous fashion.
While the mystical aspects of the film, beginning to come to fruition at this point, are incredibly interesting, they seem to merely serve as metaphor for regret. Harkening to the idea of the ghosts as the lost souls with ‘unfinished’ business here on earth. Regret, mistake and unfinished business seem to be big themes in this film. The ghost who seduces and blinds Genjurō with her beauty and ‘monetary value’ was merely, as the dialogue pointed out, searching for love, the thing she regrettably never experienced in her days on earth. However in seeking said love with Genjurō she stole his life, taking him from the love he once had and creating the second ghost of the film Miyagi.
Having been all but abandoned Miyagi yet waited for Genjurō and eventually fell at the hands of starving rogue samurai. With the disappearance of his ghost seductress Genjurō was immediately filled with regret and ran back to Miyagi, whose ghost yet waited for him to return, still having the unfinished business of a last night with her love. When Genjurō returns he finds nothing, yet as he as well as the viewer through a sort of POV over the shoulder tracking shot circles in, out and back in magically there she waits. Yet with interesting focus on the tears streaming from her eyes it’s obvious that this isn’t to last. Genjurō wakes in the morning only to be told of her death and realize his loss.
While the other couple Tōbei and Ōhama escaped the mystical aspects of the film they encountered each other later on in the film, and were instantaneously filled with regret as well. Tōbei’s ambitions had all but ruined the two of them, and it could even be said that Ōhama lived as a living ghost living only for her unfinished business with her husband, and even though they were reunited in the end, with a renewed vision of life and their relationship, they didn’t go untouched by the events of the film.
In the end this film is a beautiful indictment of free market economy. The lust for the almighty dollar (or silver coin in this case) has taken everything from our set of main characters. Tōbei and Ōhama escaped with mere bruised egos and ruined honors, however Miyagi paid with her life and Genjurō lost his true love and chance at happiness. Through the film the dialogue speaks wonders of the moral of the story. The use of dialogue to aim the viewer’s attention at the right aspects was fantastic. Through the use of lines such as “money is everything,” “this world is a temporary abode,” “the fruit of experience is beauty” and “the value of people and things really depends on their setting,” the ideals and morals of the film become stark, poetic and powerful.

II (technical aspects)
And now with the last of this essay, there is an aspect of the film that I have yet to address at length, the cinematography. This film is truly incandescent. From the use of deep focus in the landscape/establishing shots to the pace of the editing and camera movement (slow deliberate tracking and panning shots), Mizoguchi is beyond doubt a master at creating an atmosphere. Taking the visual aspects further, the use of hazy fog to create the beautiful seemingly endless water on which they travel is luminous! He also utilized voyeuristic POV very well in some scenes particularly the rape of Ōhama.
Other than this I couldn’t help but notice the brilliant use of framing aspects of the composition. Mizoguchi seems to have an amazing eye for splitting a frame, and most striking for me was the use of doorway as a framing technique. Many times throughout the film doors, as well as windows funneled the viewer’s attention upon a certain event. For specific examples look no further than the scene as the army invades the village. As they drag the inhabitants of the town away, the perspective is from the insides of their homes looking out, framed through the doorway as the soldiers violently pull the town apart. I’ve always been a huge fan of this funneling effect, and Mizoguchi does it extremely well.
I also couldn’t help but notice how for the compositions, similarly to much of Dreyer’s later films, direction in which the different characters in the frame are looking becomes increasingly important. For a specific striking example, the scene where Genjurō and Miyagi are working on their pottery together. As the child (who’s in the way) looks in all directions, Genjurō stairs forward at the pottery keeping his eye and mind on the ‘prize’ while Miyagi stares longingly at Genjurō (talking in what may as well be voice over about how much she yearns for the past when the worked together and enjoyed their lives). In this and many other frames the directions in which the characters eyes are focused, especially in relation to their surroundings and the surrounding characters, is VERY important for the effect of the scene.

Overall I would have to say that watching Ugetsu was a completely enriching filmic experience. Mizoguchi provides the viewer with a perfect example of a film that brilliantly walks the line between the harsh realities of life and the intriguing mystical aspects. Although I feel as if some of the aspects of the moral of the story were a bit lost on me for my lack of knowledge of Japan during the time period, as well as during the time the film was made, I feel as if there were many aspects off the film that were not only timeless, but transcended nationality as well. In the end Ugetsu was a complex film and I don’t think enough can be said about it. So since I feel as if I definitely left quite a bit out, please (if you haven’t already) read the essays of all of the other members of The Cineastes. This month was hosted by Matthias Galvin at Framed, and you will find links to all of the essays there, as well as if you click on The Cineastes links to the right on my page.