A Haunting Japanese Ghost Story. UGETSU MONOGARTARI

Jul 27, 2009 (Updated Jul 27, 2009)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Cinematography, costuming and acting are outstanding. The tale is timeless.

Cons:None.

The Bottom Line: This is a combination Ghost Story and Morality Tale.  It is brilliantly done.


Ugetsu Monogartari (1953) Directed by Mizoguichi Kenji  Drawn from the Tales of a Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain.

War grips the nation, and Genjuro (Mori Masayuki) and his brother Tobei (Ozawa Eitarô) smell opportunity.  Their wives Miyagi (Tanaka Kinuyo) and Ohama (Mito Mitsuko) smell disaster in the wind, but they are just women.

Genjuro is a potter, and he takes his wares to the city to sell.  Tobei has dreams of being a samurai, despite some obvious deficits in his character.  The first mission is an unqualified success, and there in are the seeds of ruin sewn.  Tobei is rejected by the army, told to come back when he has armour and a spear.  Genjuro is able to buy some nice things for his family.  And though Miyagi tells him flat out it is not the Kimono she loves, but his kindness in giving it to her, he is determined to repeat the performance.

He works like a demon to produce the next batch, working Miyagi past the point of her patience as well, and soon the next batch is ready for the kiln.  But the armies have other plans, and "requisitioners" from the local army come through looking for food, and men for forced labor.  But do Genjuro and Tobei run for the hills?  No, they stay to the last minute, stoking the kiln.  Finally, they seal her up and escape by the skin of their teeth.

Well, worth it or not, when they return, the army is gone, and the kiln is fine; the pottery is beautiful.  Of course, they have to figure out where to sell it; the local market is closed for war, and there are press gangs in the area; finally, they decide to take it to the far side of the lake.

In an ethereal scene of indescribable beauty, they boat across the foggy lake, seeking their future.  A shape looms from the mists; another boat, the dying man aboard warning them of pirates...

It is decided Miyagi will return home with their child Genichi (Sawamura Ikio) and the rest will continue to the lord's city to sell the wares.  Ohama is a boatman's daughter, so she is needed to get them there.

Once in the city, the pottery, fine quality wares, sells like hot cakes.  Tobei sees samurai riding by and is inspired to take his share of the money and seek his fortune.  With Ohama running after him shouting imprecations, he manages to give her the slip, and buys his armour and spear.  He is now ready to live the life of a noble samurai warrior...

Ohama, having gone the wrong way, finds herself in the outskirts of the city. There, she is accosted by bushi, raped, and paid for her troubles.  Having lost her husband, and her honor, she is alone in a very cruel world.

But Genjuro has problems of his own.  His helpers run off, he has a customer, a beautiful lady and her maid, who want a substantial order brought to their manor.  Finally, Genjuro puts his remaining wares in the care of his neighbor, and goes to make his delivery.

But at the mansion, it is not just his very fine pottery that Lady Wakasa (Kyô Machiko) is interested in, but the potter.  Seduced by her beauty and mystery, Genjuro languishes in a surfeit of ecstasy.  Of course, you know something is horribly wrong here.  Genjuro's first clue is how the people react when they know where he is staying....

The Analysis

This is one of the most beautiful films ever shot in black and white; Mizoguichi's use of camera, panning over lovely country side is reminiscent of a Japanese ink scrolls, unrolling their stark but moving beauty.  The costumes so perfect, they were nominated for an Oscar.  And the sets, flawlessly period, but movingly beautiful...drawn as much with shadow and light as with wood and paper.

The actors are wonderful; none are the flawless beauties of the silver screen; no, they are real people, handsome enough, pretty enough.  And they are human beings, not caricatures.  Ohama is a bit of a shrew; Tobei is an idiot.  Somehow, one feeds into the other.

There is a strong moral message to Mizoguichi's work. Genjuro is undone by greed, Tobei by envy, two of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Both achieve their hearts desire; neither receives any joy from it.

But a stronger message is portrayed.  Men pursue their foolish dreams; women pay the price.  This is a theme Mizoguichi explores in many of his films.  In his own life, his father, a roofing carpenter, had a get rich quick scheme.  If failed, disastrously, and the family had no choice but to adopt Kenji's younger sister out to another family, unable to care for her themselves.  Later, that family sold the girl to be a geisha.  This had a profound impact on Mizoguichi, and his works reflect this conflict from his own life, crusading tirelessly for the rights of women.

Usegi is the movie of ghosts, both the apparitions that haunt the characters, drawn from their classic text, and the ghosts that haunt the director.  And these apparitions lend an ethereal beauty to the movie.  This is a foreign classic well worth rediscovering.


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