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(Ugetsu monogatari, 1953)

Mizoguchi Kenji


94 mins, black and white, Japanese (English subtitles)

Review © 2006 Branislav L. Slantchev

Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain. This is the full title of this beautiful allegory based upon Ueda Akinari's famous collection of tales Ugetsu Monogatari. Set during the period of the Warring States in feudal Japan, the story of the two brothers, whose misguided search for fulfillment of their dreams brings near ruin to their families, is a seamless integration of quiet poetic surrealism and tragic realistic excursions.

The coming of war Return from the first profitable journey

Against the backdrop of a countryside ravaged by civil war, Genjuro (Mori Masayuki) and his brother Tobei (Ozawa Eitaro) eke out a pitiful existence in a small village. When a load of his pottery does unexpectedly well on the market, Genjuro feverishly begins preparing another batch with the help of Tobei, whose dreams of becoming a samurai have been dashed by the need to find money for armor and spear. Both imagine a better life for themselves and their families. Although their wives, Miyagi (Tanaka Kinuyo) and Ohama (Mito Mitsuko, who later played the beautiful, but scheming, Oko in the Samurai Trilogy), try to hold back their husbands, they are unsuccessful and eventually accompany them on the fateful journey to the city. When they become separated, Genjuro is lured by a the ghost of Lady Wakasa (Kyo Machiko, who most will recall from her fabulous performance in Rashomon) into a happy, but unreal, married life. Tobei manages to weasel into the service of the local lord when he steals the severed head of a well-known samurai. The ambitions of the two men, although driven by their desire for better life for their families, ultimately become the cause of their wives' suffering when the selfish passions of the soul take over. Some of the brutality of war is preserved and carried into the film, but the emphasis is largely on the contrast between the physical and spiritual for Genjuro, who lives between the two worlds, and between vanity and love for Tobei, who comes to realize that eking out a pitiful existence with Ohama is worth living.

Tobei and Ohama What Miyagi considers a happy life

Filmed in glorious black and white, Ugetsu has Mizoguchi's unmistakable dreamlike touch. In what is one of my favorite cinematic moments, when the distressed Genjuro returns home and finds it empty, the camera tracks him as he runs around to house only to return to his starting position and find Miyagi kneeling by the fire. Unlike Kurosawa's more explicit approach, Mizoguchi favors the subtle tone, the deliberate pacing, and a generally subdued expressive touch. Music is very important and somewhat better utilized also. It is surely a pity that such a wonderful director has mostly been in Kurosawa's shadow as far as Western audiences are concerned. His work is truly haunting, and although less grand, no less beautiful.

April 14, 2001. BLS

The night of the raid Miyagi begs Genjuro not to risk it all for profit

The recent superb Criterion special edition of this film has prompted me to revisit my original review nearly five years after I wrote it. Even though it is not my habit to rewrite my reviews, sometimes I feel I have missed important points that need to be made and so an update is warranted. On the other hand, I do not want to sanitize my initial impression, and so rather than cannibalizing the original review to make it look like my new thoughts mesh well with it, I prefer to just add to it and let the clash of the two impressions work itself out. Sometimes I am somewhat Hegelian in my approach, I know. But what the heck. At least this time around, I will throw in plenty of screen captures to illustrate the review and make it bearable.

The famous boat ride through the fog Miyagi takes her farewell

Reading my original review, I seem to have generalized a lot about women. Even though William Blake famously said that to generalize is to be an idiot, I guess I would continue to be an imbecile, even if the generalization I am about to make differs quite a bit from my initial take on the film. I have taken to talking about how people differ in their rationality according to gender, but my own experience should have alerted me to the folly of this particular generalization: my own wife is by far the more rational of the two of us, even if I make my living peddling mathematical models of rational behavior. If you press me right now, I would have to say that men and women and not more or less logical on the whole. However, they do appear to have either been socialized into or born with somewhat different value hierarchy that causes them to react in more or less extreme ways to the same stimulus. This is important to bear in mind if one wants to see what's wrong with Mizoguchi's approach toward women in this film.

Genjuro meets Lady Wakasa Tobei cannot be restrained in his lust for fame

Ostensibly, this is a very pro-women film, after all the two main female protagonists are utterly ruined by their selfish and grasping husbands. One can take this a bit further into an allegory of a violent and rapacious society that oppresses women. Even the ghostly Lady Wakasa has been deprived of an opportunity to experience love, which causes her to lure Genjuro into a marriage. However, Mizoguchi does not offer some radical feminist utopia as an implication. In a crucial way his vision is that the world is utterly patriarchal for women do not amount to much without their men. One is killed because her man was not around to defend her (although it's not clear that he could have done much against several brigands). The other is raped for much the same reason. Even more, because the latter survives, she manages to sink even deeper by becoming a prostitute. And she's not really done this out of pecuniary reasons. She's fairly explicit that her purpose was to punish her husband for making her a fallen woman, for being the indirect but primal cause for her shame. She hates her new existence (which she has voluntarily chosen) and wishes to commit suicide but not before seeing him and making him suffer for the pain he has caused her. Happily, their reunion does not end on such a tragic note because her ordeal finally opens her husband's eyes to the truth of their existence: it is better to live with her in poverty than without her in honor and riches. Still, the point is simple: women do not do much without the men, and even define their lives through their relationship with their husbands.

Roving soldiers accost Ohama Genjuro follows Lady Wakasa under her spell

So despite showing the tender family life, Mizoguchi does not really envision much of role for women except as partners to their men. They may be equal partners (the men may succeed in worldly affairs without their wives but still do not amount to much when it comes to finding personal happiness), but they do not seem to be capable of living even an outwardly successful life without men, whereas the opposite is not true. The men go through a somewhat traditional character development arc: they start out with their wives but are restless with their lot, they want more, so they go for it and achieve it. Then they realize that it is not really what they wanted, and they attempt to regain what they had lost in the process. Mizoguchi shows that the pursuit of one's goals is not without consequences, but, more importantly, not without grave risks. While one of the man is able to return to the life he lost, the other one cannot---his actions have irretrievably cost him happiness forever.

The ghostly dance Lady Wakasa marvels at her new husband

Whatever may be said about the actions of the two male protagonists, they are the active characters who attempt to pursue their dreams. Their fault lies in their mistaken goals, not the fact that they try to achieve them. The lust for power, the worldly definition of success that goads them into abandoning their wives in the midst of an undeniably dangerous civil war, all of this is reprehensible, even if they think they do it all for their wives. There is no reason to doubt they are sincere in this belief, so their quest for the elusive ill-defined happiness is tragic rather than alienating. Even Genjuro who ostensibly forgets about his family in order to cavort with Lady Wakasa is not really at fault: we must not forget that he has been enchanted by a ghost and as soon as the truth is revealed to him by the priest he abandons the alluring easy existence.

Genjuro idles away his days in a reverie Starving soldiers attack Miyagi

While Mizoguchi is sympathetic to women, it is in a strangely patronizing way. The entire tragedy that unfolds, the awful consequences of the men's lust for money and fame can only be illustrated through the suffering of their wives. But this suffering presupposes that these wives are utterly dependent on their husbands. Indeed, it is an essential assumption in the dramatic setting, for otherwise the two abandoned wives could go on their way and what their men have done would mean very little. In a way, we can charitably suppose that Mizoguchi indirectly criticizes society that makes it impossible for women to prosper without their men. That's fine, and it would explain away this problem. But that is clearly not the case as shown by the surviving woman's behavior: even her rage is refracted through her husband.

The prosperous Tobei Tobei finds out his wife is a prostitute

As befits any great master, then, Mizoguchi offers a somewhat confused and contradictory take on gender relations that poses more questions than it offers clear-cut answers. And this is probably the way it should be: after all, each couple is unique in its own way, and each must work out a relationship that is satisfactory to both partners. I have found that in family life the gender roles prescribed by society matter much less than accommodation. Rather than stand one's ground on some abstract definition of what "correct" feminine or masculine roles must be, it is far better to just forge ahead together with whatever seems to work. I am only infuriated when these external definitions intrude into the intimate relationship (either through me or through my wife), which they invariably do on occasion. Not only does it lead to discord that is utterly worthless, it also distracts one from realizing that a family is more than the sum of its parts, and any insistence on purely personal achievement is in the end self-defeating.

he confrontation between husband and wife Lady Wakasa finds out Genjuro is married

I wonder if Mizoguchi thought along similar lines. In the final analysis, what destroys the families in this film is the unbalanced approach to the relationship. Whereas the husbands are obviously to blame for not realizing just how important their continuous presence is to their wives, so are the wives to blame for not realizing that total self-abnegation is not the road to happiness either. Personal self-realization must somehow be reconciled with the demands of mutually supportive relationship. While both men eventually come around to doing that, one of them is too late. And it is this idea---that life consists of a series of choices we make with good intentions but that sometimes turn out to be wrong, and that this experience has a price that can be very, very high---is what makes Ugetsu still relevant. It is a work of genius, no doubt about that.

The last-ditch attempt to repel the ghosts An apparent reunion

The Criterion DVD is excellent, although I could not help but wonder if they could have restored the film like the superb recent edition of Metropolis done by the German outfit. I realize that a studio cannot spend two years cleaning up the negatives frame by frame, but then again just how many films are out there with the stature of Ugetsu? Having said that, I wish to add that this does not make the Criterion release bad, just that it could have been better. The film is presented in its original Academy Ratio and is in Japanese with optional English subtitles. The extras include a nice booklet that has some comments on the film plus the two Akinara stories that form the backbone of the film. Shindo Kaneto's two-hour documentary about Mizoguchi is an interesting historical document, being made over thirty years ago (and a full two decades after Mizoguchi's death). It should be quite a find for anyone who wants to become familiar with the director's life but is a bit boring (I could not see it in one sitting). Still, the Criterion 2-disc Special Edition is the way to own the film, and in quality it surpasses all other versions out there that have English subtitles. Now, where are the rest of Mizoguchi's films?

January 9, 2006