“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).


Paul Pittman said...

The role of women I find particularly interesting. At the start one is lead to believe that in the Genjuro's marriage he calls the shots (e.g. leaving his wife and child on the lakeshore without real resistance) whereas Tobei might like to think he does his wife (sister of and similar personality to Genjuro?) clearly keeps his delusions grounded. However, as the movie unfolds it becomes apparent that both men look to their wives for strength and direction; at the Geisha house and in the appearance of Genjuro's wife and her later commentary at the end. Is this Mizoguchi questioning the traditional image of the Japanese male?

Alberto Sánchez said...

I haven't found a quote about it in the movie reviews, but oddly enough the film clearly deals with the Eight Worldly Concerns (Samsaric dharmas), especially the 4 affirmative ones, which Buddhism characterizes as the types of false happiness: richness (gain), fame, emotional recognition (praise) and pleasure. Genjuro represents attachment to gain and pleasure, and Tobei would represent fame and praise attachments. The other 4 concerns would be the fear to lose (poverty), the fear of being socially or personally despised, and the fear of pain, which are also present in the film.
We all are somehow attached to one or more of these "happiness"...