Ugetsu: “Mizoguchi, Japan’s most elusive master director”
For all that Kenji Mizoguchi tends to be introduced as one of Japan’s post-war triumvirate of great filmmakers, along with his younger contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, the evidence for such claims has been poorly distributed. This is partly due to the majority of the prolific director’s films being lost forever, so we’ll never know how true his own claim— that they were hastily made and don’t represent him as an artist— really is. But his work has perhaps been too difficult to pin down, reception of his work not preoccupied with nailing him to a particular genre or style (unlike Kurosawa or Ozu). Even now, despite years producing acclaimed works of socially conscious, often radical realism, he’s mostly remembered in the West for a very narrow period of activity from 1952-4, two years (and five more, lesser known films) before his sad, untimely death.
I say this not because I’m introducing the much-needed re-release of one of his lesser known works. The truth is sadder— I first heard about 1953’s Ugetsu, one of his best known films, about 3 years ago, and have not had much success tracking it down until now, thanks to this Criterion release. It is an imbalance, that a prominent Mizoguchi work would be less accessible than relatively minor films by Kurosawa or Ozu. Ugetsu is many things. It’s a tragedy about an artist toiling away in obscurity who is seduced by the possibility of fame; it’s a ghost story on top of an erotic mystery; it’s a romance, in the Shakespearian sense, about family, about hubris, death and resurrection; it’s a raucous comedy of upended social roles; it’s a wartime adventure story; and it’s a period drama about suffering, especially women’s suffering.
It’s the late 16th century, and amidst the deprivation and displacement of war, the farmer Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) has found a profitable sideline in making and selling earthenware, to the advantage of his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their son. Their neighbour Tobei, who aims to make enough money to buy himself a set of samurai gear and elevate his station, volunteers as Genjuro’s assistant salesman, despite the disapproval of his wife Ohama. After a stunningly tense, tersely shot set piece in which the village is overrun by raping and pillaging soldiers, the five peasants steal away in the night with Genjuro’s last batch of pottery, headed in a rowboat towards the city.
What follows is a hazy, haunted gossamer of intersecting stories, all five characters successively losing and finding each other (and themselves), lured by various promises of safety, success and status, and hounded by men who war has made either desperate or cruel. Sometimes described as a tragic tale of misguided greed and ambition, Ugetsu is much less straightforward than that. Its characters often seem like the least desperate, least greedy people in light of the predatory chaos in which their entire atmosphere is suffused, to which they are hopelessly passive subjects.
Often cited as a director who shed light on the social restrictions and quiet suffering inflicted on women, Mizoguchi revisits those themes in the stories of the two wives, both of whom have much less active roles in their stories than the men. They must keep their husbands content with shared domestic humility, because they lack the freedom to follow them out of this limited existence— and such reining in of men’s desires proves impossible. It’s only in the film’s central ghost story, a gothic romance between Lady Wakasa, the heiress of a defeated aristocratic family (Machiko Kyo, of Rashomon fame) and Genjuro, that a woman is an agent of desire. She may even be, quite literally, re-animated by her longing, not for a fairytale romance, but for pleasure for its own sake, a pleasure that depends on simultaneous submission to, and seduction of, Genjuro.
This paradox is captured in an extraordinary scene, distilled in an unforgettable gesture— convincing Genjuro to stay once he has made his way to Wakasa’s mansion, she leaps on him with a fainting embrace, an aggression characterised by breathless weakness, tackling him to the ground and engulfing him in the luxurious folds of her expensive clothing. Genjuro knows, and is terrified, that he is being tricked somehow, is wary of his own absolute beguilement, but is powerless to stop it. Ultimately, I can’t decide whether Genjuro has abandoned his wife or been abducted by a cult. But the struggle and self-torturing sobriety that his final, wretched, shivering rejection of Wakasa requires, as well as Wakasa’s own deflated bitterness at having to cut short her brief second attempt at life, certainly tip the balance away from judging any of these characters too harshly.
Meanwhile, Tobei has acquired not only armour but the head of an enemy general, earning him a somewhat sarcastic advancement in Oda Nobunaga’s army. Surrounded by a suddenly adoring cadre of soldiers, a parody (or accurate depiction) of an officer, he hopes to ride home in triumph to share his success with his wife, not realising that there might not be a home to return to. In an earlier scene, gazing at his own pottery with new adoration after Wakasa has praised it, Genjuro declares that ‘the value of people and things truly depends on their setting’. Ugetsu is a story about characters traumatised by war (the narrow escape from the attack on their village) who are understandably led astray by promises of shelter. And given that nowhere is really safe, the only sanctuaries they find are ephemeral fantasies that are impossible to sustain. The abiding bitterness of the film is that there is no room for ordinary women in these extraordinary spaces, that they must bear the mundane evils of everyday suffering on behalf of their husbands and themselves.