Ugetsu Monogatari

Japan (1953) Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi

Another cinematic cherry is being popped with this first time ever watching of a film from legendary Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi. Despite a 30-year career with other 70 films to his credit, Ugetsu Monogatari was the one that finally saw his international stock rise, bagging the Silver Lion at the 1953 Venice Film Festival along the way.

Cleverly mashing three individual short stories from the celebrated collection Ugetsu by Ueda Akinari, Mizoguchi brings us a curious narrative of oppression and foolhardy dreams with a supernatural touch set in 16th century feudal Japan. It concerns the fate of two neighbours born out of their aspirations for greater prosperity in their lives.

In the farming village of Nakanogo, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) both want to do better by their respective wives Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito). Genjuro is a potter and makes a few extra yen in the markets while Tobei has dreams of becoming a samurai, despite the obvious lack of armour, sword and fighting skills.

When soldiers from Lord Shibata raid the village for forced male labour, the two families escape by boat. After a warning from a dying boatman about pirates, Miyagi heads back to Nakanogo with their son Genichi, while the others continue on to a new market to sell the pottery and return with the money. However, they are separated, sending each one onto a journey towards a different fate.

Mizoguchi was three years away from his death at the early age of 58 when he directed Ugestu Monogatari and while it is swiftly paced and vibrant in energy, there is a slight air of contemplation about it suggesting something deeper was on his mind beyond his favoured themes of the cost of war. It’s not overt or even strongly implied but the eventual revelation of regret feels somehow personal.

I don’t know enough about Mizoguchi to suggest this inference on my part is in any way accurate, but a quick look at his biography reveals a tumultuous childhood in which his sister Suzuka sold as a Geisha and later assume the mother role for Mizoguchi after their mother’s death. This would explain the empathy Mizoguchi shows towards women and Geishas in this story.

Painting them as strong willed characters within a bullying patriarchal regime, the personalities of the two wives are similar yet different – both have their own minds, yet while Miyagi is supportive of Genjuro in his pottery making, Ohama tends to nag Tobei for his unproductive dream of becoming a samurai.

Later when Tobei runs off to buy samurai armour, Ohama is captured by soldiers and raped, with a handful of coins left for her as a derisory parting gesture for her services. Fearing this is all she is good for having been defiled in such a casual manner, is not until a good while later that Ohama resurfaces again now a successful prostitute, but by no means a proud one, having accepted her fate, for which she blames Tobei.

Meanwhile the hapless Tobei has been trying to ingratiate himself with a powerful warlord, and strikes it lucky when he steals the head from the corpse of a rival general and claims it as his own doing. Tobei is duly rewarded and swans about on his horse flanked by his unimpressed vassals as if he was the daimyo himself. They stop off at a brothel to rest where an awkward reunion between husband and wife takes place.

It is therefore with some bitter irony that the stronger martial relationship is the one that begets the most tragedy. Having sent Miyagi and their infant son back to Nakanogo, Genjuro sells his pottery alone, catching the interest of the reclusive Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo) and receiving an invite to her mansion. There he is seduced into marrying Wakasa and is lured into a life of ecstasy but all is not what it seems with his new wife.

Japanese ghost stories are often built around restless spirits seeking fulfilment from the afterlife that they failed to achieve when still alive. Armed with this knowledge it is easy to see where this arc is heading, and Mizoguchi doesn’t bother to hide it with the portrayal of Wakasa as a tacit, ethereal, white-faced temptress who practically floats under her flowing white robes, succoured by her creepy elderly nurse Ukon (Kikue Mōri).

As abstract and incongruous as it this may sound it is in fact relevant as Wakasa was also a victim of war but her spectral condition is not revealed or suspected by Genjuro at any point. Mizuguchi and long time collaborator screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda leave it until the concluding final act to reveal the true tragedy and long term affect of this unholy union, playing it as a subtle summary of his anti-war message.

Regarded as a contemporary of Ozu and Kurosawa, with this film Mizoguchi occupies a middle ground – blending the family drama of Ozu within the jidaigeki setting associated with Kurosawa’s greatest works. The camerawork is often restrained like Ozu but not static and shot composition has more depth; the aesthetic is Seven Samurai-lite but credible while one can see the template for the ghostly atmosphere found in horror films Onibaba and Kuroneko in Wakasa’s mansion.

Masayuki Mori and Machiko Kyo, previously the fated couple in Rashomon are reunited here and while Wakasa is less animated, Kyo’s intensity from Kurosawa’s film is still there. Mori suffers suitably in taking Genjuro on his misguided journey, leaving Eitaro Ozawa’s Tobei to be the comic sidekick inadvertently landing on his feet. Kinuyo Tanaka as Miyagi and Mitsuko Mito as Ohama are both valuable in what are equally important roles.

With Ugetsu Monogatari being Mizoguchi’s most noted work, I may have peaked already in discovering his catalogue for the first time, yet something tells me from the quality of this film that I also have much to look forward to.