Beneath the surface of its meticulously realized feudal Japanese setting and eerie supernatural atmospherics, Ugetsu is a film about masculine obsessions with power, pleasure and status, and the burdens these delusions impose upon their wives, families and ultimately society as a whole. Director Kenji Mizoguchi, in his Criterion Collection debut here, was at this point in his career a venerated master filmmaker, and Ugetsu has garnered much acclaim as serious contender for "greatest ever" in the estimation of those in the know about such things. Given this impressive pedigree of critical reverence and the lavish treatment that Criterion bestowed upon the film, one of their deluxe slipcased book'n'double disc productions, I've spent a fair amount of time contemplating Ugetsu's images, story and the relationships it portrays. Though I'm not ready to rank Ugetsu as a Top 10 all time best (and really, what difference does that make anyway?) I easily understand the admiration it's generated. The ideas and emotions run as deep as a viewer is willing and able to go in watching films of this sort.
Ugetsu's story concerns the exploits of two couples: a potter, Genjuro and his wife Miyaki, and Genjuro's younger brother, a farmer named Tobei and his wife Ohama. They both inhabit a small village that happens to sit in the path of marauding armies in a time of civil war. Genjuro struggles with the scorn and financial struggles of being a mere artisan and dreams of achieving artistic success if only the skill and care that he puts into his pottery wins its deserved recognition. His aspirations push him toward reckless greed when he risks his family's safety (he and Miyaki have a son, while Tobei and Ohama are childless) during an invasion and evacuation of their village. Tobei is a more buffoonish character who indulges in fantasies of being a mighty samurai warrior, though his social caste, education and lack of discipline underscore the absurdity of his goal. The wives each take a characteristic stance in trying to temper the ambitions of their husbands; Miyaki remains loyal and long-suffering even as she pleads with Genjuro to limit his risk-taking for the sake of family togetherness, while Ohama is more of a nag who confronts Tobei, sometimes harshly, sometimes desperately, for she sees just how easily he can get carried away with his militaristic notions.
After a narrow escape from pillaging warriors, the families set out across a fog-shrouded lake in the middle of the night carrying a load of ceramics that they plan to sell in a prospering village on the opposite shore. The men dream of wealth made possible by profiteering from the war, seemingly oblivious to the gloomy pessimism of their environment and the song Ohama sings as she rows their boat. But they come upon a sinister omen that causes them to change their plans:
If you watch the clip all the way through, you'll see each man's fateful encounter that dooms both families. Genjuro and Tobei are seduced in a moment, though Tobei's downfall is more sudden and obvious, as he's overwhelmed by the spectacle of a passing color guard and basically robs his wife and brother in order to pursue his samurai ambitions. Sensing a sucker with disposable cash, the armor vendor compliments Tobei on his impressive stature and starts adding the accessories to run up the bill. Meanwhile, Genjuro, unable to leave his wares unattended to rein Tobei back in, prepares an order for the beautiful and mysterious Lady Wasaka that he delivers to her manor in the following scene. Once he's there, thoughts of his waiting wife and child evaporate. She lavishes praise upon his craftsmanship and endorses the care and skill that he's dedicated in creating each dish and cup by hand. Men are so easily won by flattery, especially when they feel deep down that they deserve it!
But even while the husband's egos are getting stroked, calamity strikes the wives. Miyaki's devoted care for their son comes to naught when she's impulsively, senselessly slain by starvation-crazed soldiers, though the boy Genichi lives. It's a heart-rending scene that had to evoke memories in many of its original Japanese viewers of the brutal hardships and deprivations that they had experienced in the recent war, surviving inexplicably when so many others they loved had not. Equally moving and tragic is the abduction and rape of Ohama, caught one afternoon by herself and exploited by soldiers who knew no law could prevent them from acting out their urges. Now a "fallen woman," separated from her husband who's run off who knows where in pursuit of vainglory, Ohama has little alternative but to enter a brothel, the only safe harbor available to a woman in such circumstances.
This clip below contains Ugetsu's most iconic images, an impressive demonstration of Mizoguchi's audacious but supremely tasteful mastery of techniques. Though still graphically modest according to the standards of his time, he successfully depicts a nearly orgasmic state of being experienced by Genjuro as his pleasures mount with each passing moment. Now wedded to Lady Wakasa (who has heard nothing from him about Miyagi or their boy,) Genjuro has achieved the fulfillment of all he had hoped for: material success, erotic satisfaction, artistic recognition, material comfort. Too bad that it's all based on a fundamental lie - Lady Wakasa is a ghost, and none of what he experiences is real!
Just as illusory in its own way, though more concretely realized in the flesh, is the success attained by Tobei when one day in his wanderings he happens upon to witness the ritual decapitation of a vanquished general. Seizing the head from the general's servant, Tobei runs off to a rival warlord, brandishing his new trophy and exchanging it for a reward. Suddenly vaulted to a position of power and prestige, Tobei enjoys a brief run as the Big Man in his little world. That is, until in the midst of his revelries, he has an unexpected reunion with Ohama, now a whore in the very inn where he's chosen to spend the night with his entourage! It's such a powerful scene to see Tobei's rapid descent from cockiness to abject shame, all in an instant. A gripping example of how reality checks have a way of finding us just when we've convinced ourselves that we've really tricked the world into thinking we're something that we're not.
The merciful Buddha helps to break Genjuro's spell, just in the nick of time, by sending a priest his way to alert him to the danger he's in. Genjuro then has to betray his second wife, who to be fair, had only brought him pleasure and had done him no harm that he hadn't already brought on himself. Surviving his exorcism, and discovering the next morning that he'd nearly been dragged into ruin by a phantasm, Genjuro returns to his senses and finds his way home. One last ghostly encounter, this time with the shade of Miyagi, serves to reunite him with his son. Tobei and Ohama find a way to work through their marital crisis, and a sense of order is restored, each man now older, wiser and a bit more weary from his ordeals. The conclusion of the film is ultimately affirming and uplifting, neither scolding the men for their foolish adventures nor sentimentalizing the hurts that all involved endured.
Apparently Mizoguchi had intended to put a harder, more cynical edge on the story but his producer was intent on creating a crowd-pleaser, and in this case, I'm content to let the happier ending stand unchallenged. It provides an encouraging and redemptive perspective on the regrettable turns that our lives often take, on both the interpersonal level and across society as a whole. In Ugetsu, Mizoguchi was speaking to war survivors: those who had approved and enabled the conflict, those who viewed Japan's militaristic and imperial ambitions with skepticism, and those who had not yet come of age but still had to endure its harsh effects. Filmed somewhat in response to the success that his younger disciple Akira Kurosawa achieved with Rashomon, Mizoguchi's vision embraces the frailty of human nature with a generous tolerance that nevertheless retains both the wisdom and nerve to confront it when our weakness begins to wreak havoc on the innocent. Ugetsu challenges us to open our eyes, question our ambitions (and those of our would-be leaders) and recognizes that the ghosts that haunt us the most profoundly are those we summon up from our hidden depths.
Next: Terminal Station