A tale of ambition, family, love, and war set in the midst of the Japanese Civil Wars of the 16th-century.
Until the second half of the 20th-century, very little was known of Japanese cinema beyond its own shores. For a decade or so after World War I, when the nation had been allied with the British, there was an increased interest in all things Japanese, particularly its gardens and classical art. Some examples of its silent-era cinema were exported but were approached as anthropological curios and never attracted mainstream attention. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that feature-length ‘talkies’ began to get some distribution in the West. Among the very first were Sisters of the Gion (1936), Osaka Elegy (1936) and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)—all directed by Japan’s elder statesmen of cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi, who’d already made in excess of 60 movies. By this time, he’d developed a distinctive style summarised as “one scene, one shot”. His films unravelled at a very different pace to Hollywood movies and already espoused his socialist leanings.
During the interwar period, the world’s socio-political map changed radically. Nationalism was rapidly on the rise in Japan and, as a nation, it looked to take advantage of the instability left after WWI to expand its territories into the rest of Asia. Peace didn’t last long and, by 1941, they were at war again, but this time not as allies of the West. The conflict ended with their surrender in 1945 after they became the only nation to suffer the dreadful consequences of atomic warfare when the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated.
Despite his political views being at odds with the state, Kenji Mizoguchi had continued to make films during WWII, but had to comply with strict censorship and made films that celebrated the ‘glory days’ of samurai, shogun, and the country’s feudal period. Among those films was his take on a popular historic tale The 47 Rōnin (1941), which has been remade several times since. Most recently it has been reinterpreted twice in the US, with Carl Rinsch’s version from 2013, starring Keanu Reeves, and as Kazuaki Kiriya’s The Last Knights (2015) starring Clive Owen and Morgan Freeman.
After WWII, Mizoguchi fell from favour and was considered old-fashioned by Japanese cinemagoers, whose attitudes to their cultural heritage were understandably confused. Whilst adhering to his political views, Mizoguchi moved away from his earlier style of ‘social realism’ and embraced a popular genre known as jidaigeki—costume dramas that drew from history and folklore, of which Ugetsu is held up as one of the finest examples.
Ugetsu was made less than a decade after the end of WWII and released in the centenary year of Commodore Matthew Perry’s first mission to Japan to force them to open their ports for trade with the US, which eventually led to the signing of the 1854 Convention of Kanagawa and ending an isolationist period that had lasted since the beginning of the 17th-century—over two centuries.
This gives some context to what Mizoguchi was thinking about when he collaborated again with his scriptwriter of choice, Yoshikata Yoda, with whom he’d repeatedly worked with since the ’30s. They’d also worked on The 47 Rōnin together and wanted to make amends for what was ostensibly a propaganda film that glorified battle and death with honour. This time, they set out to look at the human cost of war and the motivations of power and profit behind it. So, they used a conflict from the past as a backdrop for their stories which are clearly addressing Japan in the aftermath of WWII. Apparently, Mizoguchi’s method of collaboration was to keep sending Yoda’s script back to him and demanding rewrites. He asked for at least five different versions and even continued to amend and alter the ‘final’ version during shooting.
The source material was a book of ghost stories written in the Edo Period, Ugetsu Monogatari, by Akinari Ueda. It was first published in 1776, in the midst of Japan’s isolationist era, but Yoda and Mizoguchi have transposed it to an earlier period in the 16th-century when Japan was rife with civil war and power struggles between shoguns and their daimyo lords. The catalyst for these conflicts had been trading with the Spanish and Portuguese, who began introducing firearms and siege technology, giving some of the feudal lords unfair advantages and tipping the balance of power.
The story begins with two men from the same lakeside village in rural Omi Province: Genjurô (Masayuki Mori), a potter, and Tôbei (Eitarô Ozawa), a workshy farmer, who both see the approaching war as an opportunity to turn a quick profit. Genjurô is willing to take extra risks to get his wares to market when his competitors will not. Tôbei dreams of becoming a great samurai and earning the respect and wages that come with such a position. The fact that he has no military training, no armour, and has never wielded a spear nor sword, doesn’t dissuade him from travelling with Genjurô to the nearest town in the hope of finding a garrison to join. Predictably, the genuine samurai he approaches, having trained in strategy and martial arts from childhood do not take him seriously and shun him as a beggar.
It works out better for the potter who sells all his goods and returns safely home with several silver pieces, more money than he or his devoted wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), have ever had in hand. He sets to work making many pots with Miyagi, helping by turning his potters’ wheel and applying the glaze. Although she suggests they have enough to live on and should just ride out the conflict, they both work to the point of exhaustion, fuelled by greed for greater wealth. Their previously idyllic family life is soon forgotten, and their young son is neglected as they work all the hours they are able. Later, Tôbei returns to the village looking every part the beggar that the samurai took him for.
When their village is raided for supplies, they manage to hide from the bandits. Genjurô remains to feed the wood-fired kiln, even as the starved soldiers brutalise women and children around him. When some of the raiders break open his kiln to see what could be hidden inside, they’re dismissive of finding nothing but pots. After the raid is over, Genjurô decides to avoid the dangerous roads and take his pots to market by boat across the lake, hoping that the fog will conceal them. Tôbei and his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) accompany him on the journey, but he decides that Miyagi and his son would be safer fending for themselves and leaves them at the shore! It’s not the first bad decision he’ll make…
Although unerringly praised for its poetic dimensions, the dialogue during the first act has been workmanlike and the narrative a little ham-fisted. It relies too heavily on some broad characterisations and leaves it to the characters themselves to explain their motivations though stilted dialogue. I suppose I must cut it some slack because I’m not a Japanese speaker and have to rely on the subtitle translation. It’s certainly not naturalistic. Many of the scenes are clearly staged and precisely choreographed, probably under the influence of traditional Japanese Noh theatre, of which Mizoguchi was an aficionado. It’s worth pushing through, however, because the film soon begins to weave a mesmeric spell.
As their mist-enshrouded boat loses itself on the featureless waters, the film veers away from Mizoguchi’s usual subject matter of everyday folk dealing with everyday problems and a dreamlike atmosphere of myth and fable becomes increasingly pervasive. The lake takes on an eerie, unreal quality, possibly because we’ve left real locations behind and this scene was shot on a huge pool in a studio where Mizoguchi could control lighting and cameras more precisely. It’s the scene that the film is remembered for, though for me it’s the transition point from being a moderately interesting movie to becoming a very important classic.
Things really hot up when an ethereal beauty, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô), along with her lady in waiting (Kikue Môri), appears in the market and places a large order for Genjurô’s pots, asking that he delivers it himself to Katsuki Manor where he will be paid. There’s something strange in the way that none of the passers-by acknowledges the lady and her maid, as it seems that only Genjurô can see them—as if two realms had met in the mists of the lake and he now lives between them.
Around this time, Tôbei does a runner with his share of the money earned from selling his friend’s pottery. He purchases some armour and a spear and abandons his wife to go off to battle and prove himself worthy of becoming a samurai. Here the story unravels into separate threads. To start with, it may have seemed to be about two men, but it becomes clear that it’s really a story of three women and the injustices they suffer at the hands of men in times of war.
Without spoiling things too much, we follow the fortunes of both wives as they fend for themselves without their male custodians to look out for them. Both have a hard time of it. Alas, one meets a more tragic end than the other. The third woman’s story is that of the undead enchantress, Lady Wakasa, who seduces Genjurô. Initially, she flatters him by praising the artistry of his ceramics, particularly the bright gleam of the blue glaze, which she says could only be achieved by a true master. He accepts the compliment, although we know it was Miyagi who applied the glazes for him.
Particularly during the ghost story threads (yes, there are several ghosts involved), there are plenty of quieter moments of subtle beauty—the poignancy of a simple glance, the catch of breath, and the play of light on silk. The otherworldly atmosphere is evoked, not through camera trickery, but through masterful manipulation of light and shadow, the measured movements of the actors, the ever-so slow and subtle motion of the camera, and perfectly matched music composed by Fumio Hayasaka, who previously scored Rashōmon (1950) for Akira Kurosawa.
Much of the script seems at odds with the consistently beautiful imagery and I’m inclined to believe this to be a form of structural metaphor. At every moment, the film is operating on at least two levels. Often the dialogue is saying one thing, but the visuals are telling us something different and the meaning hovers somewhere between the two. The whole narrative is concerned with being in between, or in the act of transitioning from one extreme to another: life and death, wealth and poverty, dreams and reality, war and peace, Yin and Yang.
The soft textured grey tones of Kazuo Miyagawa’s beautiful cinematography conjure the subtle ink drawings to be found on classical scrolls or screens. Miyagawa has been referred to as Japan’s greatest cinematographer and became a close collaborator of Kenji Mizoguchi. He was to photograph all but one of his final seven films. Typically, he keeps the camera moving, often panning or tracking as if revealing a section of a scroll and, when you think about it, a film is a sort of scroll—a very long one that we see in panels as it unreels through a projector. Likewise, the medium is poetically suited to telling ghost stories as the people we’re watching only exist as insubstantial forms of light and shadow. This metaphor is all the more applicable when we pause to consider that many of the people we’re actually seeing on the screen have since died and, indeed, a film by its very nature is a method of preserving ghosts. And whilst they may be intangible they’re often capable of touching us. The final scene played out between the living and the dead is a breathtaking and beautifully staged coup de théâtre and well worth the journey.
Machiko Kyō, who plays the ghostly enchantress in Ugetsu, had already worked with the great Kazuo Miyagawa when she starred in Kurosawa’s international breakthrough Rashōmon. She would work with Kenji Mizoguchi again as the star of Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955) and once more in his final film Street of Shame (1956). The same year she would become an international star in the female lead, opposite Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford, in Daniel Mann’s The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956).
Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon brought Japan to the attention of the international market by garnering widespread critical acclaim and was awarded an Honorary Academy Award as “the most outstanding foreign language film released in the United States during 1951” (that was before a category existed for foreign-language films). Ugetsu won the Silver Lion for ‘Best Direction’ at the Venice Film Festival in 1953 and re-established Mizoguchi as one of Japan’s top three directors alongside his contemporary, Yasujirō Ozu, and relative newcomer Akira Kurosawa.
Of the three, Kurosawa is probably the most western-friendly, having been stylistically influenced by Hollywood comedies, German expressionist films, the French New Wave and, in return, significantly influenced the western genre via Sergio Leone’s innovative Dollar Trilogy. For me, Ozu’s films can be a chore to work through and, likewise, you need to be in the right mood for Mizoguchi’s earlier neo-realist fare. In the case of Ugetsu, though, I urge anyone at all interested in cinema and who’s not put-off by black-and-white films from the 1950s to give it a go. This lovely new Blu-ray edition from Criterion presents a perfect opportunity to discover, or re-discover, a poetic piece of supernatural cinema with a poignant finale that will haunt you.
director: Kenji Mizoguchi.
writers: Matsutarō Kawaguchi & Yoshikata Yoda (based on ‘Ugetsu Monogatari’ by Akinari Ueda).
starring: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyō & Kinuyo Tanaka.