2023 52-film challenge: week 2
The late 1940s and much of the 1950s was an interesting time for the film world, particularly in the West. In addition to filmmaking advances from other countries, interest in ”foreign” films and styles of filmmaking/storytelling grew at international competitions, increasing diversity and influencing North American and European filmmakers for decades afterwards.
This movie, usually shortened to just Ugetsu, is an interesting film because it weaves some timeless story ideas together: a clever allegorical tale of the delusions of men — and the subsequent wartime suffering of their wives and children, shown in a almost-feminist sympathetic light — alongside a more traditional Japanese ghost story, offering up a meaningful anti-war theme based on the lives of the innocent victims of war.
The story is based on tales from a book written in 1776 (when another more famous war was going on), and is set during Japan’s prolonged civil war, which finally ended in 1600.
We focus on a small family: the potter Genjūrō, his wife Miyagi, and their young son Genichi. The other two main characters are Genjūrō’s brother-in-law Tōbei and his wife, Ohama. Both of the two men have big dreams: Genjūrō dreams of having money by selling his pottery in larger towns, while Tōbei is almost feverish with a desire to become a samurai.
Genjūrō’s more modest and achievable aims at least are rewarded; Tōbei’s goal is sort-of achieved in a rather comical way, but their visions of success both drive them to leave behind their families to seek their fortunes, causing mostly suffering compared to the poor-but-happy lives they already had.
Tōbei, as is his habit, stumbles into enough dumb luck to finally get rewarded as a samurai general, complete with armor, horse, and retinue.
Genjūrō, in town to spend all his money on gifts for his new wife, slowly discovers that she and the villa don’t actually exist any longer; he has been seduced by a ghost, and living in a dream world that makes him forget his real wife and son. A priest he bumps into gives him a reality check, and paints prayers upon his body to help dispel the ghost and the dream-world.
The backdrop of all this is the civil war. Miyagi and Genichi, left behind by Genjūrō in his quest for larger towns to sell to, are forced from their village, with Miyagi robbed and stabbed by soldiers. Ohama, who loses Tōbei in the crowd of the city, must fend for herself and is eventually turned into a prostitute.
Tōbei, who finally has a little money from selling Genjūrō’s pottery, blows it on armour and tries to get into a samurai camp, only to be rejected.
Meanwhile, Genjūrō has had an encounter with lady of royalty who seduces him back to her villa, and uses her sensual regalness to trick him into marriage.
The triumphant Tōbei wants to return to his village to show his wife his new hero status, but his men persuade him to stop by a brothel for the evening first — where he finds his wife Ohama as one of the working women there. He is shocked back to reality by the discovery, and promises to give up his status in order to buy back her honour.
Genjūrō returns to the now ruined village and finds Miyagi and his son in their former house, relieved that at least his kiln has survived the soldiers’ devastation. He takes some food from the joyful Miyagi, who refuses to let him confess his sins, and quickly falls asleep beside his son.
In the morning, he awakes to find only Genichi still with him. A village elder discovers them and tells Genjūrō that Miyagi died from her injuries some time back, and is buried outside. The elder has been taking care of Genichi since.
Genjūrō and Tōbei reunite in the village, and promise to work hard for the benefit of Genichi and Ohana, who has had her honor restored via Tōbei’s giving up on his false success.
The film is shot with interesting lighting, camera angles (extensive use of crane shots, allowing for a mythical look), and extensive use of both traditional western soundtrack and spotlighting ancient Japanese music.
Although Ugetsu is mostly of interest to film history students these days, the movie is nonetheless a still-compelling tale of morality woven with supernatural elements. The clues that Lady Wakasa is not who she seems start with her Noh-theatre style and hikimayu-style “eyebrows,” while Tōbei’s story is told in traditional Japanese comic-underdog style.
The skill in the filmmaking blends these oddly-compatible journeys together well, and (surprisingly for the time) does not shirk from showing how their families suffer because of the mens’ chasing of dreams.
As an introduction to director Mizoguchi, it makes me want to check out his other international hit, Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Because of its towering international achievements in awards and screenings outside Japan, the film has consistently placed in many “all time greatest films” lists — and is still on the revered Sight&Sound top-100 list, having resided there at different rankings since the first such list in 1962.