Friday, May 11, 2012

Ugetsu (1953)

Ugetsu monogatari, Japan, 94 minutes
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writers: Matsutaro Kawaguchi, Kyuchi Tsuji, Akinari Ueda, Yoshikata Yoda
Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Fumio Hayasaka, Tamekichi Mochizuki, Ichiro Saito
Editor: Mitsuzo Miyata
Cast: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyō, Kinuyo Tanaka, Sakae Ozawa, Ikio Sawamura, Mitsuko Mito, Kikue Mōri

Ugetsu appeared in the West a couple of years after Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, helping position Japan as a world powerhouse of art cinema even as the country's postwar recovery continued. Kurosawa was junior by some 10 years to Kenji Mizoguchi (and more infatuated with Western culture, likely the reason he was first to break through in the West). Mizoguchi's work goes well back into the silent era of the 1920s. In typical Japanese fashion, Mizoguchi alternated between stories set in modern times and "Jidaigeki," set in Japan's Edo period, from about the 17th century into the 19th, and concerned with the lives of samurai and others of the time, often the unremarkable and mean lives of the lower classes. Jidaigeki sounds roughly analogous to Westerns and cowboys and farmers.

Rashomon and Ugetsu both count as Jidaigeki. "Ugetsu" seems like something of an ugly word, but its definition is actually very lovely, "moon obscured by rainclouds." The direct source is a 1776 collection of ghost stories by Ueda Akinari, which are themselves adapted from legends. Perhaps because it reaches so far into the past, Mizoguchi's picture looks and feels ancient, and incidentally theatrical in spite of all the exteriors and creative use of the camera to establish and underline scope and perspective. It's a morality play that confoundingly appears to accept class divisions at face value. It starts on war but spends most of its time in the strange lighting and shadows of ghosts. All its extremes tend to sneak up on one. Once begun, it is utterly engrossing, strange and beautiful. In the end it is an exquisitely balanced story that ends so satisfactorily one hesitates to question its vaguely noxious class implications. (It also has unique twists and turns along the way, which I will be discussing past the jump, so spoiler alert.)

Two farmer peasants of the era—one a talented potter (Genjuro, played by Masayuki Mori) focused on making money, the other an uninspired but hard-working drudge (Tobei, played by Sakae Ozawa) who dreams of becoming a samurai—that is, one possessed by greed, the other by vanity—are living their mundane lives when civil war sweeps across their village. They set out to sell the potter's wares in a market that is volatile and suddenly lucrative for them, but their wives are more worried about the long-term practicalities of surviving the war and try to reach them through the fogs of their dreams, which is all but impossible.

Eventually, after a spooky lake crossing is interrupted by a terrible omen, Genjuro sends his wife (Miyagi, played in a beautiful performance by Kinuyo Tanaka) back home with their son and continues on to the market with Tobei and Tobei's wife (Ohama, played by Mitsuko Mito). This scene, which simply passes as another scene the first time one sees it, is actually fully aware of all its terrible implications, extraordinarily poignant yet extraordinarily subtle about the way it communicates the flat facts of itself. It is the very moment where Genjuro actually abandons his wife and son, amazing and mysterious to see unfold. He means to come back to them, of course, but he's putting them out of the boat and leaving them behind.

From here the plot points begin to grow more murky, as the three continue on to the city and their individual fates. By the time we and Genjuro first see Kutsuki Manor, where much of the rest of the story takes place, there is a decided sense that we have entered strange realms. It doesn't feel like fog of war—there's some of that here, but mostly back in the village of their origins. Instead, it begins to move more convincingly like a dream. One feels swept up into the events as they occur, much as the potter himself appears to be experiencing them.

The samurai storyline, which is more of what we now might call the movie's B-story, is straightforward morality, and very clear-cut about its lesson: Know oneself. Because there is no ambiguity in this story, it tends more swiftly to obvious extremes of tragedy and comedy both. But the stakes never feel nearly as high. We are much less invested in it by design. It seems to be here to clarify the ambiguities of the ghost story, at least, by implication, as much as it can.

The ghost story, infinitely more interesting, does bear that same lesson—and the same exceedingly harsh consequences for attempting to defy it. But it seems less convincing to me because of its ambivalence. Genjuro appears to be an artist and craftsman of no small talent. Is he really so wrong to honor that in himself? Or is he selfish because of the war?

Certainly there's no question of his shabby treatment of his family, even though there are suggestions here that he is not fully his own agent in all of his decisions, proceeding in some specific instances very much as if he were in a dream, or even hypnotized. At one point he declares, with an undertow of confusion and anxiety, that his whole experience with Lady Wakasa (played hauntingly by Machiko Kyo) in her Kutsuki Manor "is a dream come true."

After one of Genjuro's most ecstatic moments with Lady Wakasa—a picnic on a lawn where the trees are bare—the scene cuts to his wife's death: Miyagi, bearing their son on her back, is waylaid by robbers as she tries to escape their village, which is under pillage by soldiers. It's one of the picture's most powerful scenes, naturalistic in the way it is shot and performed, which only underlines the pathos of it. It's brutal and unpleasant, and one of the scenes that most sticks with me.

Ugetsu manages to just keep topping itself as its relatively brief running time goes along, ratcheting up the strangeness and the tensions constantly. By the time Genjuro is reunited again with Miyagi and their son we are about wrung out, and thus vulnerable to the trick that the story plays at this point. And it is another remarkably memorable scene, which starts with one long tracking and pan shot that subtly replaces an empty and cold hearth with Miyagi and fire and a stew ready to eat—ultimately the picture is always scrupulously fair when it slips into ghost-story mode. Genjuro sees better than ever that this is his home, the place that welcomes him and where he knows he belongs. It is underplayed yet so wrenching as one comes to know its significance better, and it's a very nice touch to set up an extraordinarily beautiful ending.

I only saw this for the first time a couple of years ago. In many ways I wish I'd seen it when I was much younger, because it is so striking in so many ways, particularly all the elements of the ghost stories and the way they unfold, that it probably coulda-woulda-shoulda been positively formative.

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