DVD Review Of Ugetsu

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/11/06


  Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari), a 1953 film by Kenji Mizoguchi, which won the Venice Film Festival’s top prize (the Silver Lion Award for Best Direction) that year, is one of the best films to ever deal with the subject of human desire, and not only the obvious sexual aspects of the emotion. While ostensibly it is labeled a ghost story, since its Japanese title means Tales Of The Pale And Silvery Moon After The Rain, the story is a complex one that hides behind its astonishingly simple narrative and revelation, and is based upon two tales from a 1776 book of tales by Ueda Akinari, and a third story from French writer Guy de Maupassant. Mizoguchi and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda adapted elements from all three tales to create something new and relevant.

  It follows the lives and desires of two couples who inhabit a small Japanese village during the 16th Century, when civil wars and ravaging bands of Samurai soldiered plundered the countryside near Lake Biwa in Omi province. The two male characters, who may be friends, or relatives, are Genjurô (Masayuki Mori), a farmer and master potter, and Tobei (Sakae Ozawa, aka Eitarô Ozawa). Tobei is a dimwit and the assistant potter to Genjurô, and he dreams of military glory as a samurai, but cannot even handle a sword properly. Genjurô has a wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and young son Genichi (Ikio Sawamura), and Tobei has a wife, as well. Her name is Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), and they bicker in a very Ralph and Alice Kramden sort of way, while Genjurô and Miyagi seem to have a more overtly stable and loving relationship.

  After samurais come and ransack the couples’ village, the four adults find that Genjurô’s pottery has not been smashed, and he can sell it for profit at a local town. But, the need to cross Lake Biwa to get there. In the middle of the night, in fog, Ohama, a boatman’s daughter, guides the two clans across the river, where they encounter a dying boatman who has been savaged by pirates. He warns them to turn back. They do, and Genjurô urges Miyagi to take Genichi home though a mountain path. The three others head to town and sell the pottery. Seeing some samurai parade through town sends Tobei into an idiotic frenzy. He squanders his cash on a samurai suit and sword, as he loses his wife in a crowd. She ends up being attacked and raped by some samurai in a Buddhist temple, as Tobei lucks out into seeing a famous general’s vassal behead his lord, mortally wounded in battle. Tobei kills the vassal, steals the head, and becomes a bit of a legend, with his own retinue of fawners. At a house of prostitution, he then, after a few weeks, it must be, comes upon his wife, who has become a feisty whore. They reunite, and Tobei abandons his foolish ways. While this had symbolism, at the time, for Japan’s profligate military excesses of the 1930s and 1940s, the scenes still resonate in a fabular way, as indeed the whole film does.

  In the other major thread, Genjurô finds himself the victim of a lustful ghost, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô), and her servants. Their home was razed in the wars, and their whole clan killed, but she has returned to earth to claim a husband, something she was denied in life. Genjurô is it, as she flatters him over his pottery, and succeeds in seducing him. The whole episode may or may not be real, but the scenes not only work for the film, but give an extra treat for Japanese film fans, who saw the same two actors who starred in Akira Kurosawa’s earlier Rashomon, as husband and wife (Masayuki and Machiko), reprise their domesticity in an almost parodic send up of real marriage. Certainly, there are key scenes that echo earlier scenes Genjurô had with his real wife, Miyagi. Indeed, the whole film is studded with scenes and shots that echo earlier scenes and shots, with slight variations for contrast. Eventually, townsfolk and a Buddhist priest (Sugisaku Aoyama), find out that Genjurô has been bewitched. The priest writes Sanskrit runes on Genjurô’s body, and this causes his ghostly lover to reject him. He then wards them off and reality crashes back upon him. He is stripped of what little he has by a Shinto priest and his warrior acolytes, then heads back to his village.

  Meanwhile, Miyagi has gotten the worst deal of all four main characters. On the way home she is attacked by soldiers, and speared to death. As she dies in the foreground, we see the hungry warriors ravenously devour the food meant for Genichi. Genichi survives his mother’s death, and is taken in by village elders. But, when Genjurô returns home, he finds his home is empty. He walks about it and when he returns to where he started, Miyagi and Genichi are there, even though they clearly were not just moments before. She is a ghost, but a good one, who is comforted to know Genjurô has returned to take care of his son. As the film ends we see echoic scenes not dissimilar to those earlier in the film, at its start, of domestic life. Genjurô is back at his potter’s wheel, and content, whereas earlier he had declaimed, ‘Money is everything!’ As we hear Miyagi’s voiceover we feel is a vein of emotion a thousand times purer than the kitschy pottery scene in Ghost, between Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze. Meanwhile, Tobei and Ohama bicker, but more softly and lovingly, as Miyagi still speaks from beyond. Genichi rushes up to pray at his mother’s grave, and in the valley beyond we see rural life going on as if nothing- not war nor ghosts- has interrupted a thing.

  Technically, this film is not as overtly sophisticated as Rashomon, yet it does not suffer from the great dramatic letdown that film does. Kazuo Miyagawa’s black and white cinematography is outstanding, especially in the studio shots of the river and the ghostly lady’s mansion. The seduction scene, where Lady Wakasa is dancing and singing, is oddly hypnotic, and one of the most surreal moments in the film. Much of the night scenes in the film remind me of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s great Vampyr, a film with darker similarities to this one. Also, the camera is almost always moving, in this film. Very few things are static, and long takes dominate the film, with very few cuts, and then only when needed to jar the viewer for a reason. Thus, when the film ends showing us that little has changed in the valley beyond the village, we are left with a disjunct feeling between the apparent stasis of life in that time and place, and the great changes we’ve seen take place. That we never see the Lady, nor her retinue, nor Miyagi at film’s close, portrayed in a Hollywood ghostly fashion, can confuse, a bit, upon a first viewing, but on a second viewing all becomes clear in this simple, but never simplistic, tale.

  The actors are also uniformly good. Sakae, as Tobei, and Mitsuko as Ohama, are a delight, comically, and in rare dramatic moments. Machiko, as Lady Wakasa, shows dramatic improvement in just two years, as an actor, from her debut in Rashomon. Yet, the film really belongs to Kinuyo, as Miyagi, and the sublime Masayuki, as Genjurô. Masayuki was outstanding as the murdered husband in Rashomon, acting with his face alone. But, this role gives him drama and comedy, horror and befuddlement, and were it not for his name and the commentary of the film, I’d have had no idea the same actor played both roles, for he looks totally different as a peasant farmer than a samurai nobleman. One scene, before he is to go to the Lady’s mansion, we see him looking at a fancy kimono, and he imagines Miyagi looking at it, even though we know she cares little for such things. The look in Genjurô’s eyes, contrasted with the reality we know, says more of the insecurities males feel in sexual relationships than many whole films devoted to the subject have.

  As for the DVD features? There are interviews with a number of Mizoguchi collaborators and fans, such as director Masahiro Shinoda, Ugetsu’s Assistant Director Tozuko Tanaka, and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, theatrical trailers, and a terrific two and a half hour documentary disk on the life of Mizoguchi, from 1975, called Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director, by filmmaker Kaneto Shindo, that gives some really good insight into the man and his art, including odd tidbits such as Mizoguchi’s being so rapt by his work that he brought urine bottles onstage. We even see a bottle Mizoguchi reputedly pissed in. There is also the aforementioned film commentary by a Japanese film scholar and critic, Tony Rayns, which is outstanding. Often, film historians make terrible commentators, for they assume too much, condescend, or sound like they are just reading from prepared notes. While Rayns is prepared, he never condescends, nor rambles off point. Even without watching the documentary disk, one can get a great sense of the history of Mizoguchi and this film from Rayns’ comments, such as his mention that Mizoguchi disagreed with the Daiei film company’s decision to give Tobei his comeuppance. Mizoguchi wanted a more realistic end. That one also gets insightful analyses of particular scenes and actors only proves how outstanding a commentary Rayns’ gives, in stark contrast to the typical fellatio-filled commentary on contemporary films’ DVDs. Also included is a 72-page book with an essay by Phillip Lopate and three short stories that influenced the making of the film.

  While the film is in no way a modern psychological portrait of the sort Ingmar Bergman would later specialize in, a viewer is left with a firm idea of who all these characters were, simply by how their behavior is the same, yet parallaxed, by the contrast between the early scenes, and later ones that are recapitulative. Mizoguchi also made a bit of a career specialty in focusing on the lives of women, and even though the two male characters are the ostensible leads, the female characters shoulder much of the narrative and dramatic load, and do so consummately well. Ugetsu is a great film, made by an artist at his peak, and even with the misgivings its creator had, it stands the test of time immaculately.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website.]

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