Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writer: Matsutarō Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda
Cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa
by Jon Cvack
Having just watched the revered Last Year at Marienbad and being incredibly disappointed, and even somewhat angry for meeting the generic stereotype of what your average viewer might consider a Black & White Art House Foreign Film from 1962, Ugetsu flips the expectation, providing exactly what you hope for - a plain and simple badass movie based on a series of supernatural stories “Ugetsu Monogatari” by Ueda Akinari, published in 1776.
It involves two couples, Tobie (Eitaro Ozawa) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), and Genjuro (Masayaki) and Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), as they attempt to navigate through the countryside where warlord Shibata Katsuie and his army sweeps through. Genjuro has invested all of his family’s money into a new pottery kiln, hoping to finish the first batch to town before the warlords reach their village. Barely avoiding capture, Genjuro and Ohama are to able to save the pottery, sneaking off via boat to the nearest city with their wives and children. While Ohama assists his friend and partner, he’s far more committed to becoming a samurai. Thus, when Genjuro finds his pots are selling like hot cakes and the business is a success, Tobie takes his share of money and immediately goes to have a samurai suit built and work his way into the prestigious position. Abandoning his wife Ohama and child, Ohama is soon assulated by a band of soldiers.
While selling his pottery, Genjuro is visited by the beautiful noblewoman Lady Wakasa (Kikue Mori) and her servant. Lady Wasaka wishes to marry Genjuro, who obliges, even though his wife and son are still roaming the countryside, soon stabbed another marauding band of soldiers. Later, in his samurai garbs, Tobei steals the severed head of a general, returning it to the opposing side, who awards him with new armor, horse, and entourage. However, while celebrating at a brothel, he soon discovers his abandoned wife working there. And in pure horror story fashion, when Genjuro talks to a priest about Lady Wakasa, he discovers that Lady is a ghost. Returning to the mansion, Genjuro pleads with Wakasa, explaining that he has a wife and child that he needs to return to. The Lady and Servant refuse to let him go. Genjuro escapes by jumping through a window, knocking himself out, to be awakened by soldiers. He explains the situation and they laugh - the mansion has been burned for years, with the Lady inside. He must have been hallucinating. Returning back home, Genjuro’s wife soon dies, leaving him to care for the boy.
Along with Rashomon, Ugetsu introduced Japanese cinema to American audiences and rightfully so. Both films contain simple plots, placed within a universal context, with Ugetsu serving very much as a moral tale. It explores the idea of ambition - in both the era in which warlords pillaged the countryside in conquest, and with the villagers struggling to break out of their peasantry. Genjuro’s risks his family’s life savings into a kiln, hoping that it’ll start a successful business that could finally get them to buy such simple items as a Kimono is one of the most universal endeavors there is. And when his success brings him in touch with a beautiful and wealthy women, we witness his abandoning of all that brought him to that point (see The Founder). When we discover that the Lady was nothing more than a spirit, you wonder if Genjuro would have stayed otherwise. The story very much honors Greek Tragedy, in that although attempting redemption and a return to his former life, Genjuro’s wife dies in her sleep. Only if he had stuck by her side would it have been prevented.
Tobein deals with a similar manner of temptation, believing that becoming a samurai will provide him the life and purpose that he has always desired. It’s clear that he’s more interested in the admiration and recognition he will receive than from the training and discipline it takes to become a samurai. Thus, when he steals the general’s head and proclaims that he was was the one who cut it, you’re left wondering what will be the retribution? Of course, it’s discovering his wife is now working in a brothel. It’s rare for such an old film to really hit me hard, but for anyone that’s in a relationship, this was a painful scene to watch, both from Tobei’s supreme regret and inability to correct it. Mizoguchi does an incredible job of capturing the humanity in the scene - there are no loud arguments, but rather muted lines of regret and sadness. He vows to buy her out of the business, tossing his armor away as a result.
The greatest foreign films are the ones that transcend the stereotypes; where you soon forget you’re watching a black and white foreign film made over half a century ago; where you know if you showed it to anyone who enjoys a good story that they would enjoy this, because it provides universal themes that make the world feel more unified. Ugetsu contains ghosts and battles and heartbreak, with Mizoguchi finding the balance between profundity and entertainment.
BELOW: A solid sample of the film from Criterion Collection
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