Thursday, October 2, 2014

Watch This: Ugetsu

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Ugetsu (1953)
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

The realm of Japanese cinema still rests in the shadow of its two best-known directors, Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu.  However, there are many who would rank the great Kenji Mizoguchi ahead of both Kurosawa and Ozu, and one could hardly fault them.  Mizoguchi's technical mastery earned him accolades from his filmmaking peers both in Japan and overseas, and his textured examinations of Japanese society, particularly its treatment of women, have led him to be regarded as one of the cinema's first feminist directors.  Mizoguchi, who died at the relatively young age of 58, directed nearly 100 hundred films over the course of his career, but his best work came in the last decade of his life.  He once said, "It was only when I passed 40 that I understood the human truths I want to express in my films," and the later years of his career are marked by a string of great films like Women of the Night (1948), The Life of Oharu (1952), Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and Street of Shame (1956).  His best film, and certainly one of the best films ever made, is Ugetsu (1953), a beautiful, fantastical, and haunting story of ambition and love set during the civil wars in sixteenth-century Japan.  It is also, perhaps appropriately for a post written in the month of October, a ghost story, although it is certainly a ghost story like no other.

The film follows two peasant brothers, the potter Genjuro and the farmer Tobei, both of whom are married and live in a rural village.  Both men are consumed by obsessive ambitions: Genjuro hopes to sell his pottery and become wealthy, while Tobei dreams of becoming a samurai.  Amid the threat of nearby fighting, they set off for the city.  Genjuro soon returns with a sack full of gold and new kimonos for his wife and child, but rather than staying home to enjoy this bit of prosperity with his family, he plans to make more pottery and set off again as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, Tobei tries to enlist in a samurai's army, but is turned away because he has no armor, and he returns home dejected and embarrassed.  Although their wives would gladly trade material wealth for lives of happiness and safety with their husbands, both brothers are eager to take advantage of wartime conditions and chase their dreams.

Soldiers raid their village, but Genjuro's pottery is unharmed, and again the two brothers set off for the city, this time with their wives accompanying them.  In one of the film's most visually striking scenes, they take a boat across a fog-blanketed lake, where an encounter with a passing boatman alerts them to further danger from pirates.  Genjuro's wife, Miyagi, is returned to the shore, but the other three continue on, undeterred by the danger.

In the city, Tobei becomes separated from his wife and brother.  Some time later, he kills a samurai and manages to fool a lord into giving him a house and men to follow him.  Tobei takes his men to a brothel, where he discovers that his wife has been working as a geisha since he abandoned her in the city.  Meanwhile, Genjuro's pottery sells quickly.  One of his customers is the mysterious noblewoman Lady Wakasa, who admires his work and invites him to her castle.  Even at first sight, Genjuro is entranced by her otherworldly beauty, and he is seduced soon after his arrival at her castle.  Genjuro soon realizes that Lady Wakasa is a ghost, and there is an unforgettable scene where Genjuro sees her castles as the charred ruin it truly is.

Toward the end of the film, both men have returned home, and both are forgiven by their wives for their foolish ambitions.  However, there is a surprise in store for both one of the brothers and the viewer, and unanticipated revelation about one of the characters that brings a haunting power to the film's conclusion.

While the film's protagonists are ostensibly the two brothers, it is really their two wives, Miyagi and Ohama, that give the film its emotional and thematic depth.  Genjuro and Tobei are blind to their wives' pleas for levelheadedness and domestic happiness, and the brothers' blind focus on foolish ambition is what leads the two women to their respective fates.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ugetsu is Mizoguchi's seamless blending of realism and the otherworldly.  There is a seamless flow between the richly-detailed scenes of village and city life and the atmospheric, ethereal scenes involving Lady Wakasa.  This is a ghost story that is firmly entrenched in the reality of everyday Japanese life, a quality makes its impact that much greater.

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