“Ugetsu Monogatari” was directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, known for such films as the original “47 Ronin” and “Sansho the Bailiff”. It is based on a combination of two stories from “Tales of Moon and Rain” by Ueda Akinari.
The story is set during the civil wars of the sixteenth century, and follows two peasant couples. One of the men is a potter, and after making a large profit selling his wares in a nearby town, has ambitions to go to a bigger city and make even more money. His wife says this is not necessary as the profit he has made is surely enough, but he doesn’t listen. The second man is a dreamer, wanting to be a samurai and join the current wars. Meanwhile he does very little and his wife berates him for not working. The two men decide to take the pottery to the town via the river, in spite of the very real danger from rampaging soldiers who have already looted their village. The potter decides to leave his wife and child on the river bank, telling her to go home and wait for him. The second man abandons his wife in the town after getting money, and runs away to the army. The potter is invited to the home of a lady who expresses appreciation of his wares, and gets more than he bargains for.
While this story is essentially a morality tale about the pitfalls of pride and ambition, at no time is it heavy-handed or overly moralistic. The director lets the story tell itself, and leaves the viewer to make their own conclusions. The cinematography is ethereal and dreamlike, aspects that are most obvious in the scene on the foggy river, and when the potter Genjuro is in the house of Lady Wakasa. The scene where the lady dances, and the ghostly voice starts to sing, manages to portray a supernatural vibe without recourse to special effects.
The consequences of the men’s actions have the most impact on their wives. Genjuro cheerfully tells his wife Miyagi to go home with their child and wait for him, disregarding the clear dangers from roaming soldiers and displaced people to a lone woman on the road with their son. He is flattered by Lady Wakasa and delays his return, having an affair that only the intervention of a passing priest helps him end. This is where the fantasy element of the story comes into play – Lady Wakasa is actually a ghost, and has returned to the world because she died before marriage and wants to have that experience. I found it interesting that there are no special effects used to indicate Lady Wakasa’s ghostliness. The director implies the supernatural with camera angles, sound and dialogue, such as when a ghostly voice comes from a samurai helmet on a shelf. Miyagi pays the ultimate price for Genjuro’s selfishness, as she is murdered on the road, and he is lucky that his son survives.
The second man, Tobei, achieves his goal of joining the army, and, after being in the right place at the right time, takes advantage of someone else’s act to advance himself. To do this he has abandoned his wife Ohama. Again, there are many soldiers in the town and Ohama is attacked and raped. She feels unable to return home, and eventually goes to a brothel. Tobei hasn’t had a thought for her while he boasts and lords it over others who believe he is a great warrior. He only shows remorse when he sees her in the brothel and understands what his actions have done. In both cases, it is women who have paid for the errors of men.
The ending of the film is a masterful summing up of the theme throughout. Genjuro, having escaped the ghost by sheer luck and the help of a passing priest, heads for home. His home appears ruined, but as the camera pans back, the room is now in order, with a fire, food cooking, and Miyagi stirring the pot while their son sleeps. Again, the mystical is illustrated seamlessly by the camera with no special effects required. Genjuro eats and then goes to sleep, imagining that he has escaped from his stupidity with no real consequences, only to wake in a ruined house. Yes, his son is restored to him, but a neighbour tells him of Miyagi’s fate, and he realises that she, like Lady Wakasa, was a ghostly presence come to welcome him home. In the final scene, life goes on in the village, with Genjuro hard at work, Tobei’s wife Ohama coming with food for him and the child, and the lovely final touch as the little boy takes his food to his mother’s shrine and prays for her.
It seems to me that the story shows how women are often more the victims of violence and war than men, and the director Mizoguchi often examined the lives of women in his films. Even the Lady Wakasa, ghost though she is, was in life another victim of war, having been murdered along with her family. Genjuro adds lust to his other sins of greed and pride, as he stays with her and toys with marrying her as she wants, forgetting about his family whom he left behind in danger. The two ghosts, Wakasa and Miyagi, are very different – Wakasa wants sex that she has not experienced, whereas Miyagi is the faithful wife, welcoming her husband home in spirit though she cannot do so in the flesh.
Mizoguchi uses slow, fluid camera movements to tell his story. I think he would be quite bemused by the short, choppy editing of much of cinema today. The camera drifts across the scene, taking the viewer along with it in a leisurely perusal of the characters and surroundings. This is how he portrays the supernatural scenes without any effects – the camera moves across a ruined room and back to an intact room, or through an intact home and around to a ruin. It’s a clever way to do it, and one might suggest those making film on low budgets these days might watch films like this to learn what is undoubtedly a cheaper option.
“Ugetsu Monogatari” is an excellent film and I would recommend it to lovers of Japanese cinema. Even if you haven’t seen much Japanese cinema you should give it a try. It’s a slow-paced but beautiful and meaningful film.