Compulsive male aspirations engender major female suffering (L&M3)

Dec 10, 2004
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:visual compositions, fluid camerawork, great compassion

Cons:some cultural assumptions that are very alien to me inhibit going with the flow

The Bottom Line: The work of a master, but not his greatest film (that would be "Sansho, the Bailiff." 4.5 stars, rounded up.


After the numbing experience of Kenji Mizoguchi's 1941 ode to suicide, 47 Ronin" and his very depressing 1948 portrait of unmitigated suffering, "Life of Oharu," I was seriously questioning my belief that Mizoguchi was a great master (like Kurosawa and Ozu). That was based heavily on being awestruck by "Sansho Dayu" when I was in my first graduate school. Watching his 1953 "Ugetsu Monogatari" (Rainy-Month Stories--I think in the sense of stories to be told when it is raining, since there is no rain within the movie) reassured me.

It is clearly the work of a master of visual composition, as even "47 Ronin" showed. The camera is quite fluid and, unlike "47 Ronin" there is some action, not just immobile characters uttering polite formulae. And the characters are not terminally correct. Indeed, the leading male characters, master potter Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) and his ronin-turned-peasant brother, Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) are, respectively, greedy and besotted with dreams of military (samurai) glory. Each leaves his wife to fend for herself (and Genjuro's child) in the midst of civil war, Tobei to become a lieutenant (an appointment secured by seeing an enemy lord decapitated by a comrade and taking the head in claiming to have slain the enemy hero), Genjuro to experience the pleasures of the flesh with an aristocratic orphan, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo), who adores his ceramic artistry.

Although Genjuro's wife, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), had been rowing a boatload of ceramics to market, after a warning of pirates in the lake, she is put ashore and eventually killed by starving men. How/why Tobei's wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) happens to be alone in the countryside (she was last seen in the town market) to be raped is not clear to me, but alone and dishonored she becomes a prostitute. Inevitably, the braggart raised to military honor will encounter her.

Whether Genjuro will be destroyed by his liaison with a ghost is touch and go. In effect he moves from ghost to ghost, his earnings seized on the way back to the village. As in "Oharu," "Saikaku," "Sansho," and other Mizoguchi films, the men aspire, the women suffer. However, in "Ugetsu" the men eventually realize the costs of pursuit of money and glory. As "47 Ronin" glorified suicidal endeavors, "Ugetsu" seems to say that everyone should be satisfied with whatever social status is theirs. Not "knowing your place" and staying in it leads to trouble. However, trouble is everywhere in the chaos of civil war rape and plunder, and tending to his craft nearly gets Genjuro killed or enlisted before he sets off with his pots to the market town. The evanescence of the mansion where Genjuro enjoyed his idyll of luxury and ease is especially openly Buddhist, and the vanity of worldly success and acclaim pervades the movie.

The belief in beautiful female ghosts seeking living husbands was widespread in Japan (and China). The suffering of civilians in war was very fresh in Japanese minds in 1953. ("Ugetsu" might constitute penance for the propaganda contribution of "47 Ronin"? The recent history was searingly spread on screens in searing Ichikawa and Kobayashi films.)

Following immediately upon the international success of Kurosawa's "Rashomon" (with two of its leads, Kyo and Mori), "Ugetsu" and "Gate of Hell" established Japan as a cinema powerhouse during the early 1950s. "Ugestu" does not send me into the rapture of cineastes then, but remains a visual treat. I think the female suffering is a bit formulaic. Tobei's bluster seems Falstaffian to me (too broadly foolish for some tastes). The part with the greatest range is that of Genjuro, in which Mori triumphs (even as duty triumphs over pleasure, as it must -- unless the pleasure of suicide is embraced -- in the masterworks of literature and cinema from Japan).

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This "lean and mean" contribution has a dialectical relationship to Metalluk's review of "Ugetsu," which provides elaboration on plot and themes and appreciation of the sound effects.


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