“Ugetsu” - Kenji Mizoguchi (1953)

Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi's career reached its peak in the early 1950s just before his untimely death.  Among the masterpieces he created during this period, one of the most famous is Ugetsu (aka Ugetsu Monogatari – “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”, 1953).  Based on some centuries-old Japanese ghost stories of Ueda Akinari (Ugetsu Monogatari, 1776), Mizoguchi and his long-time screenwriting collaborators, Yoshikata Yoda and Matsutaro Kawaguchi, refashioned those tales into something much greater – a magical story that resonates with audiences on many levels.

The story of Ugetsu is set in the turbulent 16th century when Japan was torn by civil war, and it follows the fates of two peasant men who seek to take advantage of the chaotic circumstances in order to advance their fortunes.  Of course we know Mizoguchi’s films always take an interest in what happens to women in Japanese society, and Ugetsu is no exception.  So while the two men are the main drivers of the action, their activities affect the women around them, and there is a degree of focalization on the wives of the two men, as well.

What elevates Ugetsu above almost all other ghost stories is Mizoguchi’s meticulously crafted mise-en-scène, which casts the viewer into a unique expressionistic dreamworld. For Mizoguchi – as it also was for one of his admirers, Michelangelo Antonioni – the action of a film is so fully situated in its exterior context that we can almost consider that exterior environment to be another participating agent to what transpires in the scene.  Or, looking at it from another angle, we can say that the actors shown are all basically integral aspects of that imposing environmental context.  Mizoguchi accomplishes these effects by employing lengthy and artfully composed moving camera shots that follow the actors as they move about in the carefully fashioned environment.  Often over the lengths of these shots, the movement of the characters is managed so as to maintain a balanced visual composition. 

In particular in Ugetsu, there is a feeling of the characters almost being captive victims of their environments.  This is achieved by the extensive use of elevated camera angles looking down on the events depicted.  Indeed cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa remarked that 70% of the shots in the film were performed using a crane [1].

The overall experiential effect in Ugetsu is not that we sometimes pass into a ghostly dreamworld and then move back to reality, but that we continually exist in some sort of tension between the two.  We wonder if some parts of the story are a dream and some not, or if perhaps the “real” world we think we exist in is, in fact, just another dreamworld.  This eerie tension between reality and dream is subtle, not stark, and it is not presented intellectually, but only lies in the background. This is one of several aspects of Ugetsu that distinguishes it as a great film.

The story of Ugetsu centers and focalizes around five key characters:
  • Genjuro (played by Masayuki Mori) is a skilled, but proletarian, potter who seeks to improve the meager family wealth for his wife and young son by selling his wares to armies that are invading their provincial area.
  • Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) is Genjuro’s loving and dedicated wife.  (Actress Kinuyo Tanaka was a favorite of Mizoguchi’s and appeared in many of his films, including, The Lady of Musashino (1951), Life of Oharu (1952), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) [2].  In fact it is widely believed that Mizoguchi had a long-lasting unrequited romantic interest in Tanaka [3].)
  • Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) is a simple-minded peasant farmer and neighbor of Genjuro and Miyagi.  He has an unquenchable ambition to achieve prominence as a samurai, although he has no prior training or skills for this profession.
  • Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) is the long-suffering wife of the crudely ambitious Tobei.  Although it was not very clear to me when I viewed the film, I believe that Ohama is also Genjuro’s sister [4].
  • Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo) is a mysterious young woman whose family and estate has been wiped out by the invading army. (Actress Machiko Kyo also played the role of the boisterous young prostitute in Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame (1956).)
The action proceeds in five unequally-lengthed parts.

1.  Genjuro and Tobei Set Their Course. 
Mizoguchi opens with a characteristic scroll-like tracking shot sweeping across a 16th century Japanese village on Lake Biwa.  Genjuro and Miyagi discuss the news of Lord Shibata’s invading army chasing after Lord Hashiba’s forces, which Genjuro sees as an opportunity for him to go to the town of Nagahama to sell his pottery to the incoming people.  Genjuro’s neighbor Tobei dreams of being a samurai and tries to sign on with a local commander, but he is rudely dismissed.

Then Shibata’s marauding soldiers arrive in the night, rapaciously pillaging everything they encounter. They impress the farmers into their military forces and rape the local women. In the mayhem, Genjuro, Miyagi, Tobei, and Ohama steer clear of the invaders and manage to secure Genjuro’s pottery.  They decide the safest path is to travel to Nagahama by boat.

The ensuing boat trip is eerie and memorable.  As their small boat passes through the lake’s dense fog, Ohama sings a lament:
“This world is a temporary abode.
Where we weep until the dawn comes.
Pitched by the waves.”
They encounter another boat that is drifting in the water which they believe has a ghost in it.  It turns out not to be a ghost, but a dying man who, before he passes from this world, warns the two families about another danger – pirates on the lake who also rape and kill.  In view of that menace, Genjuro decides to steer their boat to shore and deposit Miyagi and their child so that the two of them can return home.  He warns her to avoid the main highway going back in order to avoid the arriving marauding soldiers.

2.  The Nagahama Market
They make it to the Nagahama market, where Genjuro immediately starts selling his pottery.  One of his customers is mysterious young noblewoman, Lady Wakasa, who is accompanied by her elderly nurse.

Meanwhile Tobei steals what money they have made so far and runs off to buy a sword and armor in order to look the part of a samurai.  His abandoned wife Ohama is then immediately raped by wandering soldiers.

Back in the market, Genjuro has a vision of his wife wearing one of the fancy silks on sale.  This is another “dreamworld” invocation, because Miyagi, who we know has been sent back to their village, appears here to be right in front of Genjuro in the market.  Then she disappears from view and Genjuro heads to the Kutsuki manor of Lady Wakasa to deliver his pottery.

3.  Temptations of Attachment.
At the Kutsuki manor, Genjuro is entranced by the unworldly beauty of Lady Wakasa, whose cosmetic makeup evokes dramatic expressionistic images from traditional Noh theater. The visual pacing in this almost mystical sequence slows down considerably and features a number of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely composed moving camera shots – there are five consecutive shots here, each lasting about one minute. 

Lady Wakasa’s nurse proposes that Genjuro immediately marry Lady Wakasa, who also willingly endorses the idea.  Genjuro is readily seduced. In short order, we see Genjuro and Lady Wakasa cavorting together in a garden pool and enjoying connubial bliss. 

Meanwhile Miyagi is shown trying to make her way back with her child to her home village. A 50-second overhead tracking shot showing the fleeing (and starving) army’s pillage is followed by a similarly downward-looking two-minute tracking shot showing then encountering and stabbing Miyagi, who falls to the ground.

Elsewhere Tobei, now with his sword and armor, finds the severed head of an important military commander and opportunistically uses it to secure the samurai post that he wanted.  He proudly prances through town on horseback, showing off before all and sundry. 

4.  Illusions Shattered
While Tobei is boastfully parading through the town and supposedly reaping the rewards of esteem that he craved, he stops at local brothel and is shocked to discover that his wife Ohama is now one of the geishas working there.  Thus he moves instantly from pride to humiliation.

Genjuro meanwhile is shown at a local market again, where he encounters an itinerant Buddhist priest who informs him that Lady Wakasa is actually a dangerous ghost.  He tells Genjuro that his love for the woman is forbidden and that his life is in danger.  Genjuro is, of course, shaken by this information.

When Genjuro returns to Kutsuki Manor, he is withdrawn. Again, we return to Mizoguchi’s seductive long tracking shots for this important scene. When the suspicious Lady Wakasa discovers that Genjuro’s bare back is now covered with exorcistic Buddhist Sanskrit script, Genjuro impulsively grabs a sword and madly slashes at what he now believes to be a ghost. In his delirium he faints to the ground, and when he awakens, he finds himself not in what was earlier seen as the luxurious Kutsuki Manor, but now a mere ruined skeleton of that edifice.  His fantasy world has disappeared.

5.  Return to Home
The despondent Genjuro finally returns to his home village.  There is a 40-second tracking shot showing him seeking out his old home.  This is followed by a 60-second tracking shot inside the home, following Genjuro as he circles his home before finally finding his wife.  He immediately begs her forgiveness for his transgressions, but she doesn’t want to hear about it and unquestionably and lovingly forgives him. In a following 99-second shot, Genjuro is relieved to find his wife and son are both safe and that all is well.  After happily quaffing some sake, he retires to bed.  In the subsequent contemplative two-minute shot, Miyagi is shown quietly knitting her husband’s garment while he sleeps.

The next morning, though, Genjuro is awakened by the village elder who informs him that his wife had died some time ago.  What Genjuro had seen the previous evening was his wife’s ghost.

In the final shots Genjuro and Tobei are shown returning to their past humble lives.  Tobei vows to work hard at farming for Ohama, and Genjuro returns to his pottery work.

As I mentioned earlier, there are several thematic aspects of Ugetsu in terms of which one can view the action depicted.  Here are five of them:

  • Existential (the already-mentioned ethereal aspect of existence that lays at the base of our fascination with ghost stories).  There are several visionary scenes and seeming ghosts that blend in with the “reality” level of the story.  For example, there was the ghostly man seen dying on the other boat in the lake.  He was not a ghost, but he seemed like one.  Then there was Genjuro’s vision of Miyagi in the Nagahama market.  Later there was Lady Wakasa and her nurse (and some attendants) who all turn out to be ghosts.  Finally there is the closing encounter with the ghost of his loving wife.
  • SocioPolitical (the strong antiwar message in the film).  Although Mizoguchi had shown earlier in his career, particularly during the world war period when he made The 47 Ronin (1941-42), an advocacy for blindly doing one’s civil duty, including adhering to wartime duties, the message in Ugetsu is one categorically opposed to war. The change in Mizoguchi’s attitude about war, which was probably associated with his conversion to Nichiren Buddhism sometime after 1950 [5], represented a complete turnaround. Warriors in this film are invariably shown engaged in endless murderous savagery. It is kill or be killed, with no  evident higher purpose and whose main outcome is inflicting misery on the ordinary citizenry.
    “In one of many letters to Yoda, Mizoguchi explained what he wanted to emphasize as the main theme of the film: 'Whether war originates in a ruler’s personal motives or in some public concern, how violence, disguised as war, oppresses and torments the populace, both physically and spiritually!'” [6].
  • Moral philosophy (the tension between the appeals of aesthetic versus moral values in society).  Genjuro and Tobei set out to fulfill their dreams of glory, wealth, and honor.  In this sense they seek to reach the highest states of aesthetic satisfaction.  But in the end, they find that their best course of action would have been to adhere to humbler and more moral (i.e taking into consideration the needs and feelings of others) activities.  This dichotomy between the aesthetic and the moral with respect to how one should lead one’s life brings to mind the thinking of Soren Kierkegaard in his Either/Or (1843), and it is interesting in this connection to reflect on Kierkegaard’s detailed discussion along these lines.
  • Women (the roles and treatment of women in society). Mizoguchi’s films often have an extra focus on women, and I provide more discussion about this aspect of his work in  my review of his Life of Oharu.  Here in Ugetsu, women are again shown to be complex characters who must nevertheless put up with coercive circumstances imposed on them by the social structure.  In particular, Miyagi, like Oharu in the earlier film, evinces a level of unqualified compassion that may represent Mizoguchi’s ultimate adoration of womanhood.
  • Religious (the Buddhist idea of non-attachment).  As I mentioned, Mizoguchi converted to Nichiren Buddhism some time just before making Ugetsu (and probably before Life of Oharu). Both these films extol the Buddhist notion of non-attachment.  From this perspective, the troubles we encounter in this world are due to the attachments we develop towards things and beings we encounter in the world.  The Buddhist way, as I understand it, is to avoid such attachments.  This does not mean one should disengage; it means one should avoid a personal sense of acquisitiveness towards all that we encounter in the world.  This can lead to an even richer sense of full engagement.  This presumably is what Genjuro has achieved at the end of Ugetsu.
Given the rich assortment of thoughts and feelings that make up these multiple thematic interpretive layers, it is understandable why Ugetsu continues to fascinate film audiences.

  1. Phillip Lopate, Ugetsu: From the Other Shore”, The Criterion Collection, (7 November 2005).
  2. Kinuyo Tanaka also stared in Ozu’s Equinox Flower (1958).
  3. Michael Smith, Directory of World Cinema: Japan 2 (IB - Directory of World Cinema), John Berra, (ed.), Intellect Ltd. (2012), p. 41.
  4. Vili Maunula, “Ugetsu: Seeing double”, Akira Kurosawa info, (1 January 2012).
  5. James Mark Shields, Encyclopedia of Religion and Film, Eric Michael Mazur (ed.), ABC-CLIO, pp. 325-327.
  6. David Williams, World Film Directors: Volume One 1890-1945, John Wakeman (ed.), The H.W. Wilson Co., NY, 1987 – quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Ugetsu”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, VII:7, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (7 October 2003).

“Oklahoma!” - Fred Zinnemann (1955)

When the musical drama Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in 1943, it seemed to be a genre-defining moment.  Although musical theater had been around for some time, the degree to which the play’s songs were integrated with the dramatic action was unprecedented, and the play enjoyed a record-setting Broadway first run of five years.  This was the first collaboration of the already separately famous Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics), and it set the stage for their string of subsequent hits that included Carousel (1947), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959).  This was the indeed golden era of the American musical, and Oklahoma! has always been considered its epitome.
The 1955 film version of the stage musical that was directed by veteran Fred Zinnemann was carefully overseen by Rodgers and Hammerstein to ensure that it faithfully followed the stage play, and it became an instant classic. It is still probably the iconic film production of an American musical drama.  In fact this fortunate combination of Broadway dramatics and Hollywood cinematics is reflected in the distribution of the four Oscars that it won:
  • Musical drama (Broadway): Oscars for Best Music and Best Sound Recording
  • Visual drama (Hollywood): Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Editing
The story of Oklahoma! is based on the 1931 stage play by Lynn Riggs 1931, Green Grow the Lilacs, that is set in Oklahoma in 1906, just prior to its attaining US statehood.  A background context of this narrative is the eternal and metaphorical conflict between the cowboy and the farmer.  Cowboys were the first arrivals in the territory and managed to cohabitate the open range for their wandering herds of cattle.  Farmers arrived later with their contracts, rules, and land deeds.  The more specific conflicts between cowboys and farmers concerned restrictive property ownership and water rights.  More generally, though, the cowboy has always metaphorically represented the unrestricted and sometimes irresponsible adventurer – wild and instinctive.  The farmer, on the other hand, has represented controlled sobriety and orderly social behaviour.  This traditional cowboy-farmer conflict is well known to those familiar with American westerns and is merely the social context for Oklahoma!.

More specifically, the film’s story concerns the romance between the cowboy Curly (played by Gordon MacRae) and his sweetheart, the farm girl Laurey (Shirley Jones). A persistent and troublesome contestant for Laurey’s affections is the hired hand Jud Fry (Rod Steiger). A secondary relationship providing a comic slant is that between another cowboy, Will Parker (Gene Nelson), and his promiscuous girlfriend Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame). 

These developments are set in the traditional theatrical arrangement of two acts separated by an intermission.

Act 1 – Establishing the Relationships
The first act of the story is by far the most satisfying and features eight of the film’s eleven songs, including the delightful "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" (Curly), "The Surrey With the Fringe On Top" (Curly), "Kansas City" (Will Parker), "I Cain't Say No" (Ado Annie), "Many a New Day" (Laurey),"People Will Say We're In Love" (Curly and Laurey), and "Pore Jud is Daid" (Curly and Jud).

Throughout this act, Laurey is playing hard-to-get with respect to what she perceives as the overly confident Curly.  So, much to the consternation of Curly, she contrarily agrees to accept the invitation to the upcoming box social event from her other admirer, the surly Jud Fry.  These interactions are spicily, but lovingly, overseen by Laurey’s guardian, her Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood). Also depicted are Ado Annie’s difficulties in choosing between her two ardent admirers, Will Parker and the traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert). 

Act 2 – Coming Together
The second act centers around the local box social, where the cowboys and the farm people get together and try to blend socially.  On the way to the event, the insistent Jud Fry tries to force his affections on Laurey, but she manages to get away from him and arrive at the event alone. There are some subsequent rather artificial confrontations involving the various aspirants to the affections of Laurey and Ado Annie; but in the end, everything is resolved to the satisfactions of those we pull for.

Now, one might say that Oklahoma! is just a bunch of nice songs stitched together into a trite narrative, but I think the film is much more than that.  The film is essentially an emotive narrative presentation that keeps the audience “in tune” with the main characters throughout.  Thus it is essentially an expressionistic production, where the expressionism is not so much present in the physical context, but rather in a musical context.  There are some significant strengths and weaknesses to this presentation, though, that are worth highlighting.

First of all, the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein is extraordinarily good.  I usually appreciate music in terms of its melodic content and pay less attention to the lyrics.  However, Hammerstein’s lyrics here are so rhythmically and thematically clever that they elevate Rodgers’s music to another level.  Every time I rehear these lyrics, I marvel at the ingenious way Hammerstein managed to craft them.  On top of that musical platform, the performances of Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, both in terms of emotive projection and vocal presentation, are outstanding.  They articulate the lyrics very clearly and yet it all seems natural and emotionally authentic. 

There are other effective performances, too.  Gloria Grahame, who was famous for her film noir roles, is peculiarly compelling as Ado Annie, and she presents an interesting contrast to Shirley Jones’s Laurey. Charlotte Greenhood’s Aunt Eller offers a crucial link between the various factions and seems almost to be a Greek chorus to the proceedings.  And Gene Nelson’s spectacular dancing sequences in the role of Will Parker look effortless but demonstrate amazing agility and physical coordination.

On the other hand there are some detriments, as well. The 13-minute-long dance sequence associated with the song “Out of My Dreams” at the end of Act 1 that was choreographed by Agnes de Mille is tiresome and enervating.  Earlier dance sequences in the film associated with the songs “Kansas City” and “Many a New Day” are briefer and better integrated into their  songs.  Here in the “Out of My Dreams” sequence, though, we have a distinctively separate and long balletic piece that disrupts the viewer from the main narrative.  Moreover, it was ill-advised to show closeups on the dancers who represent substitutes for Curly and Laurey in this sequence.  Their facial dissimilarities from those of MacRae and Jones are somewhat jarring and have the effect of distancing the viewer from empathic involvement.  This kind of dance sequence may have served as a welcome break in the original stage-theatrical setting, but it is disruptive and ineffective in the cinematic context.  The later filmed version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel (1956) also had a similarly disruptive balletic sequence that interfered with that film’s narrative presentation.

Overall, though, the film is outstanding and holds up on repeated viewings. My favorite song from among the many memorable pieces in the film is "The Surrey With the Fringe On Top".  What is yours?

  1. This is also related to the traditional conflict between cowboys (favoring the open range) and sheep herders (favoring fenced and restricted land).  See “Sheep Wars”, Wikipedia, (10 December 2015).

Fred Zinnemann

Films of Fred Zinnemann: