Ugetsu monogatari

Japan, 1953

Directed by Mizoguchi Kenji

With Mori Masayuki (Genjurô), Ozawa Eitarô (Tobei), Tanaka Kinuyo (Miyagi), Mito Mitsuko (Ohama), Kyô Machiko (Lady Wakasa), Aoyama Sugisaku (the old priest)

The background of “Ugetsu monogatari” is the widespread fighting between warlords that wreaked havoc to Japan over the 16th century, before one of them overrode his enemies, heralding the long period of political stability and iron-clad, moralistic military rule known as the Tokugawa era. The events occur around the Biwa Lake, north of Kyodo, near the country’s center; they revolve around the fantasies and faults of two neighbors of a small village, potter Genjurô and farmer Tobei, as they wander too far away from their native place.

This village is logically the first stage of their bizarre adventures; a remarkable reconstruction, it is the launching pad for the two men’s ambitions. Genjurô reckons to make a pile thanks to the quality of his earthenware; a first success feeds his zeal and greed and he would prove ready to go at any lengths to fulfill his goal. Tobei, for his part, dreams of the glory brought by arms and bravery; he wants to stop tilling his land and to become a true samurai. There is a limit to their ambitions: their wives. Genjurô’s wife, Miyagi, is glad to watch her husband’s efforts earning their family – they have a son – so much money and to contribute to them; however, his greed makes him less gentle and more maniacal. For her part, Ohama bluntly refuses to support Tobei; she dismisses his ambitions as stupid and unrealistic.

Under the spell: Mori Masayuki cannot resist Kyô Machiko’s charms

An attack by wandering troops keen on pilfering, raping and murdering forces the villagers to flee. The potter, the farmer and their relatives eventually escape the onslaught by taking a boat; they intend to sail to a nearby bid city to sell the earthenware Genjurô managed to keep. But they come across a fisherman warning them to be careful; he has been attacked by pirates and is dying. Genjurô and Tobei stubbornly decide to carry on with the travel; Ohama follows them but Miyagi and her son go back.

The city rewards them with a huge commercial success but it is the place where the course of their lives is altered. Tobei succeeds in becoming a samurai, wasting his money in the equipment and pretending to be the hero who killed a famous general when he actually stole the severed head of the soldier, who had demanded his aide to kill him, unable to bear the pain from his wounds and from his defeat. He has lost Ohama, who is kidnapped and raped by soldiers, but never seems to worry about her. Of course, his feelings change when he meets her by chance as she works as a prostitute; her misery quickly brings him back to reality and they move back to the village, keen on tilling their land.

The case of Genjurô is more complicated. A noble woman, Lady Wakasa, has ordered pots and plates and wants him to deliver the stuff at her castle. He does it but is then seduced by the mysterious lady and eventually has an affair with her. His life becomes like a dream shaped by love and luxury; it would take the troubling words of an old priest to make him understand he has been framed by a ghost. He must flee the place, impoverished and stupefied. Genjurô would also go back to the village, only to find out Miyagi was killed long ago by soldiers.

Originally a part of a famous collection of fantastic stories published at the end of the 18th century, the story deftly moves from an earthy depiction of the peasantry at the time of national crisis to an eerie and tragic vision of the human ego. Tobei’s adventures keep a ribald, concrete nature and rely on sheer luck. They highlight the disaster that the multitude of soldiers and warlords brought to the population and the no less disastrous admiration that fighting and military prestige can foster. The consequences are summed up by Ohama in her trademark candid way: her downfall was just the price to be paid for the (fake) ascendancy of Tobei.

Miyagi, if she was not so generous and kind, could have said the same thing from the hereafter. To forget her is more than the consequence of a spell; the whole episode points that Genjurô is even more obsessed with success and comfort than previously suggested. His dream-like, or rather nightmarish, adventures betray his deeper and more wicked desires. His pursuit of profit and luxury stands not only as an even bigger and scandalous illusion than Tobei’s dreams of glory but also as a more intense need. Criticism of the war still informs that part of the narrative: Genjurô’s greed is fueled by a commercial success that is clearly linked to the war, which distorts the market, while the ghost he falls in love with just try to feel sentiments and pleasures that were denied to Lady Wakasa who lost her life at too young an age because of the same internecine war (the plight of the female characters once again allows Mizoguchi Kenji to cast Japan as an unforgiving country for women).

The strange meeting with the dying fisherman heralded the fantastic development of Genjurô and Tobei’s story: shot in a fog and amid a strange silence, it is a compelling take on ghost stories. A clever use of lights and sets later hint that Lady Wakasa’s castle may be not what it looks like. Tellingly, the spell is revealed and broken thanks to another supernatural intervention, the sudden appearance of an old priest and his transformation of Genjurô’s torso into a written prayer. But in a fascinating and poignant twist, the supernatural does not vanish from the film as the castle does: Genjurô is welcomed back home by what turns out to be the ghost of his wife and her voice would hog the soundtrack and Genjurô’s thoughts till the final image. This time, however, the ghost brings comfort. It does not distract from reality but tells the morale of the story – men should avoid dubious and dangerous quests for greater success, and instead enjoy what life has provided them. In a world rife with violence and where boundaries between normalcy and fantasy are weak, they must learn to choose the right path, which means running away from their misleading illusions and instincts.

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