UGETSU MONOGATARI (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

A period piece, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (The Tale of Ugetsu) reflects a universal motive for war. It’s a tragic look into the human heart of war. A Silver Prize winner at Venice, it has since ranked fourth in a Sight & Sound poll of international critics naming the greatest films of all time. At the turn of the century, a poll conducted by the Village Voice named Ugetsu one of the greatest films of the twentieth century.

The script is by Matsutaro Kawaguchi, from Yoshikata Yoda’s adaptation of two stories from Akinari Ueda’s eighteenth-century collection Tales of the Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain.

In sixteenth-century Japan a small village is pillaged by soldiers marauding through. A woman, Miyagi, begs her husband, Genjuro, that they flee to safety; ignoring her, he takes time to retrieve pottery from his kiln. A friend of his, Tobei, a farmer, dreams of glory to the same degree that the potter dreams of profit. Tobei decides to become a soldier. Both men, their wives and the potter’s son escape at night by boat. Depositing his family on shore, Genjuro proceeds alone to marketplace to sell the pots whose safety he held above wife and child’s. Henpecked, Tobei abandons his wife, Ohama, to pursue soldiering. Thus both men leave their wives unprotected. At market Genjuro falls under the spell of a beautiful princess; he moves in to her castle and her bed. Meanwhile, Tobei gets lucky; taking boastful credit for the decapitated head of an enemy leader he chanced upon, he is given rank and a troop to lead. One day he chances upon something else: Ohama, a prostitute since being raped. Tobei’s dream of military glory vanishes. Feeling guilty over his adultery, Genjuro meanwhile abandons the princess, whose presence and whose castle turn out to have been illusions. Humbled, Genjuro goes home to Miyagi and their son. A forgiving Miyagi tends to him lovingly through the night. In the morning, though, he learns the truth. Last night was an illusion; his wife, an apparition. Some time ago, the abandoned Miyagi was killed in war.

The film’s closing shot is among the most celebrated and most moving in cinema. From Miyagi’s grave the camera tilts upward to reveal the whole peaceful village; but this is one more illusion, for beyond the village’s borders war yet rages on.

The village of humankind, we now know, is riddled with ghosts. Tobei, for instance, is farming again; but the glue of his relationship with Ohama, to whom he is again subordinated, rather than love, is the shame and guilt that haunt him over his costly abandonment of her. Too, Genjuro will remain haunted by his memory of Miyagi, whom he abandoned and betrayed in pursuit of worldliness—material gain; forbidden eroticism. And unanswered questions will also haunt him: were his intimacies with the phantom princess somehow connected to Miyagi’s death? Whatever thing she is beneath her façade of seductive loveliness, did the princess out of jealousy kill Miyagi? Or was the princess all along, simply in another form, Miyagi’s ghost come to tempt him to abandon spiritually the devoted wife he had already physically abandoned? At the end of the film we hear, or think we hear, Miyagi’s voice—but what is it? The voice of her spirit? The voice of Genjuro’s guilt? Whatever it is, it tells Genjuro that they are back together and close now but worlds apart. What an illusion! Here is the reality: never again will Genjuro be able to hold his wife in his arms.

Ugetsu monogatari is one of the most haunting and most delicately moving of films. “Miyagi” sitting in sad meditation after her husband, returned, has gone to sleep haunts us when, the next day, Genjuro learns of his wife’s prior death; it is our memory that is haunted by this image. Perhaps we recall, earlier in the marketplace, when the potter envisions Miyagi delighted upon his return home with his gift for her of new dress material. There, also, Miyagi seemed so materially present; thus, later, the revelation of a dead Miyagi’s seeming presence haunts doubly—compounded by the apparition of the princess, trebly.

War isn’t mere backdrop in this film. Human selfishness, for which the princess is phantom embodiment, emerges as war’s cause. Thus the end of Ugetsu marks only a point in a continuous cycle of violence. (The marauding of the soldiers that began the film’s action is another point in the same cycle.) The cycle is circular. Ashamed, guilty, regretful, men withdraw into themselves, creating for themselves a hard, selfish shell. Defending them against the ghosts of memory, this “protection,” however, also preserves the ghosts, locking in with them the souls of men. Conflict with other men—ultimately, war—seeks to expiate or exorcise these ghosts; men lash out at others—reflections of themselves—to rid themselves of the ghosts. But the process itself, shedding others’ blood, creates new ghosts—new cause for shame, new cause for guilt, new cause for regret. Thus the process is self-renewing. Anomalously, war emerges here as an unwittingly performed, chaotic ritual—humanity’s perpetual sacrifice to memory; humanity’s endless quest to keep still the ghosts that haunt. Ugetsu isn’t interested in denying the drive for territorial conquest or the politics of power as motives behind wars; rather, it seeks to place these “explanations” into a broader context. In the film, note, no particular explanation for the fighting is given. This focuses our attention on the film’s thesis that all such “causes” are illusory—attempts by us, however compelling, to rationalize a human impulse towards violence. Moreover, unlike Akira Kurosawa or Oliver Stone (and many others), Kenji Mizoguchi harbors no ambivalence about war, secret or otherwise; he doesn’t seduce us with war’s sensual spectacle while delivering a contrary message. (His battle scenes, at best, are minimalist; Kurosawa complained about this while still adjudging the film one of the world’s greatest.) Ugetsu is not a combat picture; it’s about war. Its aim isn’t to reproduce war but to fathom it. In the fates of Miyagi and Ohama, Mizoguchi again addresses a favorite theme of his, the plight of women, that perhaps achieved its finest expression the previous year in The Life of Oharu; but this time his feminist theme is placed in the larger context of a world of men—not a world in which war is something that occurs for this reason or that, but a world run by war and violence because of the frenzy of ghosts seizing men’s souls.

What an entrancing, engrossing film this is—the kind one gets lost in. Contributing to its beautiful visual poetry is Kazuo Miyagawa’s peerless black-and-white cinematography; quiet, lovely, restrained, it projects the sensibility and spirit of the potter’s wife. Thus Miyagi silently, invisibly haunts frame after frame—a remarkable formal expression of the film’s unifying theme. Similarly, Kinuyo Tanaka’s gentle role as Miyagi dominates the film’s tenor. (It is Tanaka who, as Mizoguchi’s Oharu, created one of the most moving characters in cinema.) The more aggressive actress Machiko Kyo is striking as Princess Wakasa, helping to create a contrast that teasingly shifts further the curtain between illusion and reality.

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One thought on “UGETSU MONOGATARI (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

  1. Hello again :) I think…no other film has left such an impression on me. It’s…devastating, haunting, almost overwhelmingly beautiful. Great, really.

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