Kenji Mizoguchi, “Ugetsu” (1953)
Two interwined morality plays about peasants blinded by thoughts of personal fame and glory are the basis for an exploration of love, loss and the importance of community and working together in this sumptuous historical drama. The story of Tobei and Genjuro is set during a period of civil war and instability in mediaeval Japan. Tobei, a farmer, dreams of becoming a samurai and Genjuro is obsessed with becoming a master maker of pottery, selling his wares and enriching himself and his family. A skirmish of samurai employed by a local landlord gives Tobei and Genjuro the opportunity to escape their ravaged village and realise their dreams.
The tale of Tobei is very straightforward, centred around the foolish Tobei himself and his long-suffering wife who pays a heavy penalty for her husband’s ambitions. The story could have ended very badly for Mr and Mrs Tobei but at the end they are still together … and moreover, living quite happily ever after. Genjuro’s story is as complicated as the character himself: taking his ceramics to sell in a market town, Genjuro encounters the mysterious aristocratic Lady Wakasa who invites him to stay at her family mansion. As you might guess, Genjuro and Lady Wakasa become a little too friendly with each other and Genjuro forgets that he has a wife and son waiting for him at him. A mendicant monk disabuses Genjuro of any fancy notions about living with Lady Wakasa as man and wife and Genjuro finally realises that Lady Wakasa and her retinue are ghosts. Sadder and wiser, he goes home only to discover that his wife has been killed by soldiers, leaving their son behind.
Both Tobei and Genjuro’s stories can be read as parables on the folly of men trying to achieve dreams and ideals beyond their talents or abilities to control, and the suffering they cause to their wives and children. On one level, the film can be read as essentially conservative, in urging people to accept their places in society according to their abilities and skills. On another level, the film warns that individuals who try the play the system for material profit risk being destroyed by forces against which all their own intelligence, skills and wiles are bound to fail – because the system is rigged against them. Certainly Tobei comes across as a stereotypically foolish dreamer who lacks insight and who fails to understand that to become a samurai, one needs to be born into the right social class and have the means to pay for intensive weapons training, learning how to fight and how to plan military strategy. As for Genjuro, a more intelligent man on the other hand, his materialist greed and lack of concern for his wife and child separate him from his family and put him in spiritual danger and his loved ones into danger from the chaos and violence of war. While Tobei and his wife survive simply by sheer luck, and one is unsure as to whether Tobei has truly learnt his lesson, Genjuro’s family is much harder hit – yet his suffering and his son’s suffering have an unexpected benefit as the wife’s spirit becomes an inspiration to Genjuro to refine and improve his pottery-making skills, and concentrate on creating pottery of intrinsic beauty rather than pottery aimed at pleasing others and for monetary profit.
The suffering that Tobei’s wife is subjected to as a result of his folly – and the tragedy of Genjuro’s wife – highlights the social injustices women were forced to endure in traditional Japanese society. Even an aristocratic woman such as Lady Wakasa is denied the freedom to live and love as a human, and has to become a ghost in order to experience the full range of human experiences.
The film has a smooth gliding quality that enables the ordinary and the supernatural to co-exist and allows a fairy-tale featuring ghosts to deliver a message about the suffering political instability (represented by civil war) and socio-economic hierarchies cause to working-class people and their families. While the editing is sometimes slower than most Western audiences would prefer and the film’s conclusion tends to drag, the narrative weaves from Tobei’s story to Genjuro’s story and back easily and smoothly. The horror provided by the ghost story sub-plot is stealthy and insidious rather than overt, and viewers get the impression that Genjuro is very lucky to escape Lady Wakasa with his life and soul intact.
The film is often cited as one of Japan’s greatest movies though I sometimes wonder whether the social justice aspects of the film make much impression among its fans.