Of the three Mizoguchi films that I’ve seen to date, I think Ugetsu is probably the most thematically and stylistically complex. It is at once an allegorical tale of corrupt militarism, a penetrating study of human psychology, a sensual romance, a curious ghost story, and a powerful statement about man’s tenuous ownership of his humanity. Moreover, it juggles the plights of not one but two couples at its epicentre, cross-cutting with modulated precision as their very different wartime fates unfold before the viewer. Ugetsu’s success derives from its director’s ability to mould this heterogeneity into a cohesive whole of affecting clarity, thereby unmasking Mizoguchi’s talents as not simply a superior craftsman of the cinematic form but also as a deft storyteller in the tradition of the legends that he evokes.
I often find that films that look to the past do so in order to comment on the present. Taking both Ugetsu’s primary concern (the effects of war) and it’s year of release (1953) into account, it’s difficult to argue that the film defies the aforementioned template. The fact that it’s set during a point in Japanese history when civil wars plagued the nation allows Mizoguchi to invite comparisons with the tumultuous years of the 1930s and 1940s. Thus, Tobei’s exaggerated fixation on becoming a samurai parallels the nation’s own march towards militarism, whilst the character of his brother Genjuro – intent on gaining profit from chaos – serves as a fairly damning critique of wartime opportunism. Our kinship with these characters elicits some sympathy, but the director doesn’t make it easy for us: take for example the scene when Tobei watches an attendant behead his master (a renowned warrior) and then murders the attendant in order to steal the warrior’s head and thus the prestige associated with it. Our affinity with Tobei, an otherwise likeable buffoon, makes this scene initially come across as wryly humorous (Sakae Ozawa’s performance in the role is quite absurd) but that’s before we witness his abhorrent deed. It finally reads as pathetic yet sobering, when we realise that it’s one of a countless number of examples when good people were blinded by greed with grave consequences.
It’s difficult to sympathise with the male characters in Ugetsu because Mizoguchi’s own sympathies evidently lie firmly with the film’s women and therefore it is they who suffer the most, often as a result of their husbands’ recklessness. This suffering does however afford them the opportunity to display the resilience that so many women – or even civilians in general – are required to draw upon in similar situations. The character of Ohama is a case in point: her husband, Tobei, leaves her to pursue his own goals and in his absence she is raped and forced into a life of prostitution. Despite all this, our first encounter with Ohama-as-prostitute sees her fighting with a client for cash and later, after her eventual reconciliation with Tobei she insists: “Don’t let my suffering be in vain, pull yourself together and work hard.” It’s telling that Ohama, strong-willed and defiant of her oppressors, should end up back with her husband by film’s end, whereas the resourceful but more traditional Miyagi dies (although the film does want to martyr her.) Either way, Ohama’s rape and Miyagi’s death highlight three important points: a) the tragic effects of a military that’s beyond control; b) the fact that female oppression reverberates upon both the genders – when their husbands finally realise the extent of their ignorance, they strive to improve themselves; and c) the desperate, but all too often futile, attempts to protect the family during wartime.
To discuss the women of Ugetsu without mentioning Lady Wakasa, arguably the film’s most memorable female, is clearly an injustice. Although she exists only in Genjuro’s consciousness, she is an essential part of the film’s texture. She shares in Miyagi and Ohama’s sufferings – war brought about the end of her home, her family and her life. Furthermore, she is the embodiment of Genjuro’s fantasies: she’s beautiful, of a noble background and massages his ego by praising both his artistry (pottery) and his self-perceived sexual magnetism. Here is a character willing to be completely subservient to the patriarchal order,, and yet even Lady Wakasa can be seen as a tool for the director’s more feminist tendencies: she’s motivated by her own self-fulfilment. Yes, she’s dependent on the love of a man, but an alternative reading might argue that she’s a thoroughly empowered woman who uses her sexuality to entrap men – this, despite the fact that she’s a product of the male imagination. Nothing is ever black-and-white in Mizoguchi’s world!
The Lady Wakasa episodes imbue Ugetsu with a level of eroticism that’s perhaps surprising for a film made in 1953 – I’m thinking particularly of the scene in the hot spring, where the suggestion is that she and Genjuro will engage in filth (!) as it concludes with Lady Wakasa jumping naked into the water off-screen. However, the principal significance of the Lady Wakasa segments is the supernatural elements that they provide. From the two couples’ crossing of the misty Lake Biwa, we know that the film has an interest in that which is ghostly. Lady Wakasa’s emergence, a slow and mystical shuffle towards Genjuro selling his pots, is a mark of her own eeriness. What is notable about the way Mizoguchi tackles these scenes is how he doesn’t create a sharp stylistic contrast for Genjuro’s fantasies. The transition between reality and reverie is governed by trademark subtlety, leading towards a more resonant dreamworld as a result. It’s less the style and more the content of the scenes that gives the act away: Genjuro talking to his pots, Kutsuki mansion gradually changing from ruin to splendor, and most strikingly the sudden and complete submission of a powerful woman to a peasant which is unfathomable, especially given the context.
Another explanation for the tone of Genjuro’s dream is that Mizoguchi is determined to show us that the real world is a far more terrifying prospect than the supernatural one. The film’s most horrifying scene is unquestionably Miyagi’s murder, a scene that conversely acts as an exquisite representation of the director’s style. It opens with the distant screams of a woman presumably being raped, recalling Ohama’s fate and highlighting Miyagi’s own vulnerability. We then bear witness to hungry soldiers aggressively searching for food, foreshadowing Miyagi’s own fate. There’s a sense of relief when she and her child finally make their escape, only to be harassed by the same hungry soldiers. They steal rice cakes, meant for her child, provoking her maternal instincts to fight back. As her back is turned to us, a soldier stabs her and we gradually realise that the wound is fatal.
Here, we see Mizoguchi’s most devastating insight – wartime stripping humans to their most animalistic tendencies, limited to the primal concerns of food and sex (the latter as foreshadowed by Ohama’s rape, which we presume will also threaten Miyagi.) Miyagi is also stripped to her most natural disposition, with the interest of protecting her child set above all else. As she’s dying, Mizoguchi utilises a deep-focus shot to show her valiantly attempting to continue her journey for the sake of her son in the foreground, whilst in the background we witness the jubilant soldiers bickering over morsels of food. It’s a moment of indescribable power: even as the film’s most appealing character lays dying Mizoguchi refuses to cave in to overt sentimentality, instead insisting that life goes on and that her death is only [u]one[/u] of the faces of war (one which doesn’t prevent the indifference of others.) I’ve so far neglected to mention Miyagi’s child, but it is he who arguably provides the scene with its greatest tragedy. As his mother is dying, he clings onto her, screaming and crying – another innocent corrupted by war, and now unprotected. It’s a pitiful moment, a harrowing image, and an example of how Mizoguchi is an expert at directing horror scenes – except that his brand of horror is so powerful because it is grounded in the realm of bruised human emotions, and is thus entirely identifiable to the viewer. The fact that Mizoguchi places this entire scene immediately after the images of husband Genjuro’s sexual delight creates a masterly juxtaposition that demands the utmost sympathy for Miyagi and her fate. Similarly, the scene that follows this – Tobei’s aforementioned submission to brutality, comparable to the bandits that murdered Miyagi – is lent greater power as a result of it’s own situation in the narrative.
All this praise, and one could be forgiven for thinking that Ugetsu is flawless – but this is not the case at all. There are moments in the film that are too visible as contrivances: e.g. the random kind-hearted woman that helps Miyagi escape the first group of soldiers; the equally random appearance of the priest who just happens to notice that Genjuro’s been possessed as he casually walks past him on the street; or the way in which Tobei’s soldiers advise him to stop at the brothel that conveniently houses his wife Ohama. Speaking of Tobei, the writers take a naive perspective regarding his fate – are we really to believe that, having vaulted up the social hierarchy, he would give up everything and return to a peasant life with Ohama, particularly during a period of war? There’s a certain amount of gullibility that’s demanded of the audience, and this makes the film’s conclusion problematic – especially when the conclusion in question is a conservative affirmation of the social order that advocates an acceptance of the status quo.
Still, earlier I said that nothing was ever simple in Mizoguchi’s world and perhaps that’s the case here? As previously stated, Miyagi’s death could well reflect a pessimism about acceptance/endurance, whilst it’s the experience of the Tobei character as opposed to the resolution that’s important. And of course, the film’s screenplay is itself derived from old Japanese fables, and if we judge the film on that level I think it ably succeeds. Additionally, it should be noted that Ugetsu opens and closes with shots of the same mountain village, the humble place in which its characters call ‘home.’ By bookending the film with similar images, Mizoguchi underlines the prospect of everything we’ve witnessed being cyclical – and if that’s the case, surely the conclusion takes on a much darker dimension? Either way, the proficiency of Mizoguchi’s directorial touch (complemented by cinematography Kazuo Miyagawa and editor Mitsuzo Miyata) results in a unique visual property that irons out – or at least counters – the faults in the screenplay. Like, how about the seamless transition between Genjuro and Lady Wakasa’s encounter in the hot springs that pans left and miraculously merges into a lush meadow? Or the mind-boggling 360-degree pan that greets Genjuro’s return home… it begins in an empty hut and ends by revealing Miyagi cooking dinner?! Cinema exists for moments like these, and Ugetsu is a film that’s brimming with them.