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Currently playing at the AK film club: Kagemusha (Kurosawa 1980)

Film Club: Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, 1953)

Ugetsu

Our last film club film of the month in 2011 is Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 work Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari, Tales of the Moon and the Rain), which is generally considered one of the main classics of Japanese cinema.

Ugetsu’s story was based on two 18th century Japanese short stories, it was thematically influenced by a 19th century French one, and also had its fair share of 20th century studio influence. The main story is largely based on two stories written by Ueda Akinari for Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), his collection of nine independent stories published in 1776. However, as Mark Le Fanu has argued, the finished film is far more than a simple formal adaptation, as it “shapes a radically new work out of its sources”. (56) Nevertheless, the stories “House Amid the Thickets” and “Lust of the White Serpent” can be said to form the basis of the film’s plot.

Thematically, Ugetsu is said to have been influenced by Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Legion of Honour, which is about a foolish man’s desire for public recognition, and his blindness to see reality when being tempted with the goal of his desire. The ending of Ugetsu was meanwhile compromised artistically as the production company Daiei rejected Mizoguchi’s original ending and insisted on a happier one, which Mizoguchi provided for them. (Tadao Sato, 112-113)

In my introduction to Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff which we watched in October, I mentioned that the film was one of those classics that have generated surprisingly little actual substantial discussion or interpretative work. The same cannot be said of Ugetsu, which has been widely discussed and interpreted, and seen as an anti-war film, a commentary of post-war Japan or a (proto-)feminist film, among other things. Tadao Sato further suggests that one major reason for the film’s popularity is its unique success in depicting Japanese religion: “No other film, at least in my understanding, has depicted the idea of Japanese religion so clearly and completely.” (Sato, 116)

Stylistically, the film was influenced by noh theatre, especially its genre of ghost stories. Noh’s influence can also be noticed in the film’s soundtrack where Mizoguchi insisted that the composer Fumio Hayasaka integrates noh instruments into his original idea of utilising mainly western ones. (Sato, 114) Beyond its noh influences, Ugetsu has also almost universally been praised for the elegance of its visual imagery, but also its realism and its historicity.

Ugetsu is available in region 1 DVDs from Criterion (try Amazon.com), while Eureka’s Master of Cinema series has put it out in region 2 (try Amazon.co.uk), although the latter British release appears to be out of print, or at least difficult to get hold of these days.

After December, we will kick off 2012 with Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Information about the film’s availability can be found at the Kurosawa DVDs page, while our full film club schedule is available at the film club page. But now, let’s discuss Ugetsu!

24 Comments »


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Discussion: 24 Comments »

#1


lawless



I haven’t listened to the commentary yet, but having watched Ugetsu for the first time, my reaction is similar to that of Vili and Ugetsu to Sansho the Bailiff. It’s a beautiful, evocative film, although I didn’t think the shots were as beautiful as those in Sansho, but I felt like Mizoguchi and his screenwriters were hitting me over the head with anvils and preachiness. It was an illustrated (and simplistic) morality play. I simply could not believe that Genjuro would go so far as to forget his son and the wife who’d worked so diligently by his side and, more importantly, not request payment for his wares as soon as he arrived at the manor. I realize that we are supposed to believe that Lady Wakasa enchanted him, but I couldn’t, perhaps because it took place too quickly and easily. Also, there is too big a gap between the ephemeral nature of the supernaturally-tinged characters and the realism of the other characters.

Sorry, but this one was a disappointment. I even like the lengthy and somewhat static The 47 Ronin better than this.


 

#2


Vili Maunula



I’m not sure what to think of your comment, lawless. Is it that my memories are gilded and Ugetsu really is as empty as you say? Or does your comment only give me hope, as we seemed to hold rather diametrically opposite views on Sansho? :smile:

In any case, today I received a notice from zavvi.com that my copy of the Mizoguchi box set by Eureka / Masters of Cinema has finally been shipped. It includes Ugetsu, so I should get to see it soon. Well, in 10-15 days, which is what they said it will take for the package to reach me. They are usually quite good with their shipments, but this one I ordered back in October!


 

#3


Longstone



Hi Vili
regarding the lack of availability of a lot of film titles in the U.K. in recent months, unfortunately during the riots in London earlier in the year , a huge warehouse belonging to Sony DADC distribution was destroyed. This contained, sadly , the entire stock of DVDs for many of the U.K. independent film labels . Masters of Cinema stock was also in that fire . Their web site did carry a statement explaining that they were slowly remaking as many titles as possible and I think now most of them are reaching the market again . That probably explains the delay in getting your box. I bought the MOC Mizoguchi titles a while ago before they boxed them together and really enjoyed watching them.
I don’t post very often but always enjoy reading the film club discussions here , one of the reasons I don’t post is I can’t always think of things to say . You regulars here always have amazing thoughts and analysis on the films which really add to my enjoyment of watching as it gives me new things to look out for.
I have the MOC Ugetsu but when I saw it was your film club for this month , I cracked and bought the Criterion set too , excessive I know but I couldn’t resist the 2 hour Mizoguchi documentary packaged with it .
I enjoyed the film a lot , it does look beautiful and personally I love the detail in the films of all the great Japanese directors , so I found myself engrossed in the smaller things , the pottery techniques and shapes of the pots , the kiln , the costumes etc. etc. . I was also watching the camera style and length of the shots as I had recently been reading ( or watching a documentary ? ) about the difference in techniques between Ozu and Mizoguchi and how Mizoguchi was a master of long moving extended shots to explore the space in Japanese buildings when compared to Ozu’s static camera and straight cuts to move around 3D space.
I was also interested to see on one of the DVD extras that Mizoguchi wasn’t happy with Ugetsu himself because the studio made him change the ending apparently his original script had a less happy conclusion with the one brother remaining a samurai and not going home ?
Does any one here know more about that?
By the way I have never studied film at all so please feel free to correct me on my above observations regarding camera techniques etc.
cheers


 

#4


Vili Maunula



during the riots in London earlier in the year , a huge warehouse belonging to Sony DADC distribution was destroyed. This contained, sadly , the entire stock of DVDs for many of the U.K. independent film labels.

Wow. I didn’t know that. It explains why so many smaller UK releases have been out of print this year. Thanks for letting us know. That’s very unfortunate for the smaller labels, although I’m sure the stock was insured at least.

I don’t post very often but always enjoy reading the film club discussions here , one of the reasons I don’t post is I can’t always think of things to say . You regulars here always have amazing thoughts and analysis on the films which really add to my enjoyment of watching as it gives me new things to look out for.

I’m glad to hear that you enjoy the discussion here. As for you not knowing what to say, I can tell you that even those of your own observations that to you may sound banal and obvious could well be something that the rest of us never thought about, and would really benefit from hearing. There are times when I have written what I thought was a clever and inspired interpretation of a film, only to discover to my great amusement and pleasure that no one really reacts in any way to my main thesis, but instead finds a nugget of gold in a supporting observation that I had almost edited out of my text thinking that it’s something so obvious that everyone must have thought about it.

And of course it works the other way around as well. For almost every single film that we have watched, there has been at least one comment (but usually more) here that has fundamentally changed how I approach the film, or at least offered another angle from which to view the work. And often those bits have not been in the title or the first paragraph of the post, but buried in a half-forgotten sub-clause somewhere towards the end of it.

I have the MOC Ugetsu but when I saw it was your film club for this month , I cracked and bought the Criterion set too , excessive I know but I couldn’t resist the 2 hour Mizoguchi documentary packaged with it .

I debated getting it, but ended up going for the Masters box set. How would you say the Criterion print compares with the Masters one? And how good is the documentary? Would the Criterion be worth getting just for the documentary?

I was also watching the camera style and length of the shots as I had recently been reading ( or watching a documentary ? ) about the difference in techniques between Ozu and Mizoguchi and how Mizoguchi was a master of long moving extended shots to explore the space in Japanese buildings when compared to Ozu’s static camera and straight cuts to move around 3D space.

Indeed! I am always amazed at the skills of both directors. Ozu’s visual continuity and space awareness is amazing, considering that he hardly ever moves the camera. Meanwhile, some of Mizoguchi’s shots are really very long, and feel even longer once you become aware of this fact. As I haven’t seen Ugetsu for a long time I cannot comment on it yet (maybe you can?), but Sansho at least had some pretty long takes.

I was also interested to see on one of the DVD extras that Mizoguchi wasn’t happy with Ugetsu himself because the studio made him change the ending apparently his original script had a less happy conclusion with the one brother remaining a samurai and not going home? Does any one here know more about that?

All I know is what Tadao Sato writes in Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema, which is basically that the ending was changed because Daiei didn’t like Mizoguchi’s original ending, which more strongly followed his typical theme of “the sacrifice of a woman for a foolish man”, and that Mizoguchi wasn’t particularly happy about having to change it.

I wonder, how does the film’s ending compare with the two stories on which Ugetsu is based? Have you read them (I think they should be in the Masters of Cinema booklet)?

By the way I have never studied film at all so please feel free to correct me on my above observations regarding camera techniques etc.

Oh, but I would say that you have, since you have watched a film and clearly thought about it critically. And in any case, off the top of my head, I don’t think that any of us regulars here have really studied film full-time academically. We are all “hobbyists” in that sense. But determined ones!


 

#5


Longstone



Hi Vili
the documentary with the Criterion set , I found fascinating but have only had time for one run through , there is a lot to take in as it’s 150 minutes long. It wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste but because it was made in 1975 and so features many interviews with actors and crew still alive then I found it very interesting but as I said I’ll need to find some more time to give it a proper go through.
Both prints seem very similar in quality to my eyes ( both good) , so no reason to go for the Criterion set for quality , MOC are a great label in my opinion and the Mizoguchi set has 8 films in ! The Criterion does have a full Tony Rayns commentary ( which I haven’t had chance to listen to yet ) where the MOC set just has a Rayns video introduction.
Both have extensive booklets with the short stories in but I need to find time to re-read them .
cheers


 

#6


cocoskyavitch



Longstone, that’s fascinating information about the riots having such an impact on DVD distribution!

lawless, my head is now officially blown. I cannot believe that you didn’t fall for Ugetsu! It is one of my favorite films of all time. Contrary to your feeling trapped in a boring lecture with points driven home by sledgehammers, I first experienced the film as pure poetry-and lost myself in the story of the protagonist losing himself!
The music is by Hyasaka! The main character is played by Mayasuki Mori! Machiko Kyo is the ghost! (How insanely cool is it that these two were, respectively, Samurai and wife in Rashomon? Isn’t it a delight to see them so transformed?) Miyagawa was the cinematographer! Ugetsu won the Silver Lion of Venice award! Allright, allright, clearly none of that matters if it didn’t hit you right…

But, it hit me and left me haunted…seduced and abandoned…(I had rented it at a video store, then perhaps the only copy vanished…) it disappeared and in the intervening years I searched for it high and low, having forgotten its name…watching all kinds of nonsense and beans in search of it…it wasn’t until Criterion released their (spectacular) revisioning of Ugetsu that I was able to revisit…and again, I was, 15 or more years since my initial viewing, blown sideways in wonder.

For me, it is a classic beauty…silvery and mysterious and as lovely as sad tales can be. For me simple does not mean simplistic-and in the simple structure and ravishing details I see the story of our own desires writ in ashes that disappear in the wind. The longings of the human heart iare powerful and ephemeral.

Vili, the Criterion “extras” and booklet make their release “worth it”. It is particularly the interviews with then-living colleagues of Mizoguchi, and their insights into his character and working method that have been most valuable! Highly recommended!


 

#7


Longstone



Hi
just to expand on the warehouse fire ,
it was owned by the distribution arm of Sony known as Sony DADC and handled subcontracted distribution for almost all independent music and film labels in the U.K. including M.O.C. and the BFI . many of these companies had insurance ( and of course Sony did ) but I understand some ( many ? ) didn’t have business interruption cover on a scale that allowed them to simply repress everything while they had no stock to sell to generate cash. Also Sony, had certain rules for example , a minimum stock level of 500 units thus if you had 300 units of a title destroyed a repress of 500 was required for it to be restocked and insurance companies are not going to pay for that. Hence a lot of titles have been slow to reappear . The independent music labels got a lot of publicity here but the film ( DVD ) labels didn’t .
here is the news story from the Guardian STORY HERE

some more info here STORY HERE

cheers


 

#8


Vili Maunula



Thanks for the links, Longstone. Depressing reading. But it’s also good to hear that Sony’s disaster backup plans appear to have worked to some extent.

And Coco, thanks for the recommendation. Maybe I’ll get the Criterion as well. The documentary and the extras sound interesting. Maybe I’ll wait and see if there will be a Criterion sale at Barnes & Noble soon.


 

#9


lawless



Coco – After loving Sansho the Bailiff as much as I did, I was surprised at my reaction to Ugetsu. I recognize and acknowledge that it is strong on the technical side — Hayasaka’s music is wonderful, and Miyagawa is a great cinematographer, although I liked his work on Rashomon — even though it’s my least favorite of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, the camera work just shines — Sansho the Bailiff and Yojimbo better. There is a strange restlessness and sinuousness of line, though, to much of the camera work here that I found distracting. I suspect it has something to do with how Mizoguchi wanted the shots taken. That said, there were many memorable shots, among them the lighting of the outer veranda in the manor, some of the movements of Lady Wasaka and her attendant, the transtions within the hot springs scene and from the hot springs to the scene on the shore, and Miyagi’s final appearance to her husband back home.

I think my main reason for not liking the film is the screenplay. Oddly enough, unlike almost everyone else, I liked the screenplay for Sansho.

I wasn’t that impressed with the acting, either. Machiko Kyo and the actress who played her attendant were perfect, but Tobei was played too broadly, Mori as Genjuro was sometimes a little too lowkey, and at times both Ohama and Miyagi didn’t feel real to me, as contrasted with the female leads in Sansho.

I also had trouble with the men’s motivation; Tobei seemed a perfect fool (which perhaps he was) and hence was less interesting to me. Since Genjuro was more level-headed, it was harder for me to see why this man who, from what Miyaji said, was normally a loving family man became so fascinated with war profiteering. Some dialogue explicating that which didn’t amount to frenzied amazement at how much they’d made would have helped. And Ohama’s motivation for wanting to see her husband again before dying seemed murky to me; even if she wanted to rub his nose in what his foolishness meant for her, wouldn’t he suffer more if she made him watch her service other men? What is the point in her offering herself to him one last time?

As for what happens to the women, especially Ohama: I think Mizoguchi is trying to have it both ways: he’s trying to set up an artistically interesting scene that glamorizes what happens to the woman by the way the scene is blocked (look at a similar scene in Sansho – the actress falls and wriggles in a similar fashion) while at the same time instilling in the audience a sense of pity for what she’s suffering because of her husband’s choices. It’s almost a form of pornography of suffering and degradation.

That said, I found the ending of the film, from Miyagi’s appearance to Genjuro when he arrives home to little Genichi placing an offering of food on his mother’s grave, affecting, although it wasn’t as much so as the ending of Sansho. In fact, the setting of the opening of this movie are reminiscent of those at the end of Sansho.


 

#10


Ugetsu



Lawless, I find it so interesting how you’ve come to such a different conclusion from Vili and myself! I hadn’t watched the film in a few years, I finally watched it last night, and I wasn’t disappointed. I agree with you that the ‘message’ as such of the film is not exactly subtle, but when I first watched it I hardly noticed it, I was so entranced by the visuals. For me, Ugetsu is simply a more satisfying film that Sansho because it is less obviously didactic (although looked at more closely, it is quite simplistic and didactic), and I found the characters and their relationships more realistic and satisfying. Plus, it has Michiko Kyo, always a plus for me!

I do agree though that the acting isn’t the strongest point of the film. I think that Mizoguchi’s focus on flowing visuals meant that we weren’t really permitted to get to know the characters more deeply and explore their motivations. In particular, we never really get to know why the two male leads are so fevered compared to their (apparently) quite sensible selves in the pre-war years. I was reminded watching them of a quote I read in a book about Japanese politics that ‘Japan as a society lacks brakes’. In that context, it meant that once Japan collectively decides on a course, it follows that course even in the face of impending disaster. Perhaps this was Mizoguchi’s comment on this, or maybe just a reflection on a particular type of Japanese character type.

On the subject of acting, it occurs to me that while Mizoguchi was a master of visuals, and communicating meaning through those visuals, in contrast to Kurosawa he often left the actors floating in this visual cloud. As such, I think he was heavily dependent on charismatic actors being able to leave their stamp on the film. Kurosawa seemed to integrate his lead characters into the movement and flow of the camera and editing, leaving a stronger impression of those characters, although often at the expense of minor characters.


 

#11


Vili Maunula



I finally received the DVD two days ago and watched the film last night. I wasn’t disappointed. I still very much prefer Ugetsu over Sansho.

As you have pointed out, Ugetsu of course does have its flaws, and in fact many of those flaws are the same as with Sansho: the acting could be better, the story could be deeper, the characters could be rounder, and there could be less hand-holding in terms of exposition. But crucially, in all of these matters, in my view Ugetsu is a film superior to Sansho. It is less flawed.

Having said that, the world of Sansho does feel more real. Ugetsu has a strong sense of artificiality, with many of the scenes very obvious sets. This works brilliantly for the ghost scenes (especially the lighting in those scenes is absolutely brilliant), but less well everywhere else. Ugetsu is more confined to smaller spaces, and whenever it depicts larger areas, I don’t quite buy them to be real: the characters’ home town doesn’t look like anyone actually lives there, while the market town where they go to sell their wares appears way too busy to be realistic.

In contrast, Sansho has more of a sense of a living, breathing world existing behind the characters. I wonder how much of that was conveyed simply by the fact that in Sansho Mizoguchi seemed to employ wider shots, showing us more of the world, even if what filled the screen was usually just trees and grass fields.

Continuing with the comparison, and coming to an aspect which is usually the most important to me, the story of Ugetsu is more interesting to me than what we have in Sansho. Although, I must say that I would probably have preferred the originally intended ending, based on what I have heard about it.

But crucially, Ugetsu has got me thinking, and I think that there are a few things that I want to explore and say about it. Right now, those things are floating unconnected to each other in my head, but I think after a day or two they will start to form coherent thoughts. Hopefully, they’ll also make some sense. :lol:


 

#12


Ugetsu



Vili

But crucially, Ugetsu has got me thinking, and I think that there are a few things that I want to explore and say about it. Right now, those things are floating unconnected to each other in my head, but I think after a day or two they will start to form coherent thoughts. Hopefully, they’ll also make some sense.

I’ll be interested to hear what you say – in the meanwhile, Happy Christmas to you and everyone else here!


 

#13


daniel



First and foremost, i must mention that Kenji Mizoguchi is my favourite Japanese director of all time. I recall watching Ugetsu a year ago and was absolutely amazed by how amazing shot this film was. I often compare this film to Bunuel’s surreal masterpieces, because Ugetsu for me exhibits the most dream-like qualities in all of the Mizoguchi films ive seen. At that time, Mizoguchi was actually the 2nd most well known director in the west (at least in Europe and especially France, where the Cahiers actually realised the genius of him). In some ways, the trilogy was over-shadowed by the Kurosawa masterpieces, but still Kenji was rather popular (Look at the sight and sound polls) at that time. Mind you, Ozu only gained popularity in the mid 60s, and even the Cahiers critics were more enamoured by the Japanese New Wave wave directors of the 60s such as Immamura and Oshima, who scorned Ozu.
My favourite Mizoguchi is still Sansho The Bailiff. I adore it. Its my 2nd fav film of all time. :wink:


 

#14


lawless



Ugetsu, Vili – It is ironic that our feelings about this movie and Sansho the Bailiff are diametrically opposed. Let me try to break down why that is, at least on my side.

In both cases, those who like the movie less find it simplistic, the characters’ motivations hard to swallow, and the script too inclined to tell instead of show. I think the reason I feel that way about Ugetsu and not Sansho is that for all of their similarities, they are fundamentally different types of stories. Ugetsu is a morality play; Sansho follows the arc of a hero’s quest, although the quest itself is mostly interior and psychological.

In closing, I’d also like to mention that I see some connections between this movie and Oshima’s Gohatto, paritcularly at the end, when it becomes less realistic and more dreamlike in quality. I’m not saying this or Mizoguchi were conscious influences, but I see a certain amount of overlap. That also extends to the use of interiors as a framing or sort of proscenium. I think I’ve discussed this before.

What do I mean by that? Sansho is not out to show that right action leads to right consequences and wrong action leads to wrong consequences the way Ugetsu does. (As an aside, this characterization would be accurate even if Mizoguchi’s initial ending had been retained. And I’m beginning to feel like I’m writing a Buddhist discourse instead of film analysis.)

As I see it, the purpose of Sansho is to show the son’s straying from and returning to his father’s (and by extension his family and clan’s) lofty ideals against the backdrop of family privation formed by the priestess’ betrayal of them, their separation, and enslavement of various kinds. Thinking about it, it strikes me that the characters’ actual slavery could be a metaphor for more psychological sorts of slavery — people stuck in dead-end, unsatisfying jobs, men stuck in an unforgiving military system or political system they feel powerless to change, or even a director who’s praised but not allowed to film stories exactly the way he wants to. But that’s a digression from my point.

The purpose of Ugestu, on the other hand, is to show the terrible consequences of the characters being blinded by greed and ambition. It is not so much their wish to be successful businessmen or to rise above their class that is being criticized, it seems to me, but rather their abandonment of their village and families. They may pretend to and convince themselves that they’re doing it for their families, but they’re really doing it for themselves and their egos.

This makes them less sympathetic characters; I don’t care as much about what happens to them. In addition, their wives have their moral agency taken away from them; their husbands ignore and abandon them, leaving them to be, in the one instance, raped and left fit for nothing better than prostitution and in the other, killed by soldiers. Another aside: since her son was strapped to her back, how did he manage to free himself and survive when she didn’t? Whereas the sister in Ugetsu voluntarily did what she did to help her brother escape. She exercised moral agency even though it was at the expense of her life.

There is also a subtlety and moral complexity in Sansho that for the most part I don’t see in Ugetsu. The priestess at first appears to be a savior, although we know (or suspect) that the mother shouldn’t trust her. The question of what slaves owe to their owner/master is morally complex. Are they better off revolting, collaborating, or something in between? What is more important, effectiveness, which might argue in favor of compromises intended to make one more likely to survive one’s slavery without physical harm, or morality, which might lead to maiming or death? Even the ending is more morally complex, although this is where I start liking Ugetsu more. Sansho attains a sort of existential uplift: the sister is dead and mother and brother have gone through a great ordeal, but there is value in their being together again finally that is not completely outweighed by their painful pasts. The ending of Ugetsu, while moving, is not as complex; it’s a salute to and remembrance of Miyaji’s role in their family and a nod to her appearance in the justly famous ghost scene.

The only parts of Ugetsu that seem to me to show much in the way of subtlety are Genjuro’s sojourn at the mansion and his seduction by Lady Wakasa, Tobei’s behavior once he takes credit for the death of the general (in its own way as despicable an act as the rape of his wife; I can understand the studio wanting him to get his comeuppance), and Miyaji’s appearance to her now repentant husband. But I’m not sure how believable the first two are.

The flip side of this is that the men appear to be personifications of greed (Genjuro) and ambition (Tobei). There’s your morality play right there. Instead, I want to see flesh-and-blood characters in all their horrible glory and contradictions. To my mind, because it follows the arc of a hero’s quest, Sansho has a moral complexity that Ugetsu doesn’t. We wonder: Will the son recover his earlier ideals? Will he and his sister be reunited with their mother? What will happen to him once he gains power and frees the slaves? Will that be a good thing or will it come back to bite him in the butt? How will the slaves react? And what does that mean for society at large? I can see resonances in the timely question of whether it is better to pursue war crimes charges against various Arab leaders whose populace has revolted or is revolting or to work to send them into exile?

As I mentioned previously, I find it hard to suspend disbelief for Genjuro’s capitulation to Lady Wakasa and her attendant. Artistically, the way Mizoguchi filmed it and left it open-ended works, but it makes the story confusing. I spent a certain amount of time trying to puzzle out how it was that Genjuro saw Lady Wakasa and her attendant: were they figments of his imagination? Ghosts? Did they enchant him or did he unconsciously case a spell on himself? Having thoughts like that during a movie means the director’s lost my attention.

I agree, once you’re not concerned about the answers to these questions — and I realize I may be barking up the wrong tree completely and taking the movie too literally — this section of the movie is beautiful, effective, and chilling. But I sitll find it hard to believe that a Genjuro who is so blinded by greed as to ignore his wife and her advice is going to fall for Lady Wakasa’s enchantment so quickly and stop being concerned about receiving payment for his wares. Or is Mizoguchi saying that women can enchant men and wrap them around their little fingers because men let their genitals do the thinking for them?

BTW, do either of you know the specifics of Mizoguichi’s intended original ending? Did Tobei return home but continue to seek fame and fortune as a samurai, or (as is more likely) refuse to go home? I can see Mizoguichi’s point in wanting one brother to see the light but the other not to as a contrast and a touch of greater realism (or pessimism), but there’s power in the symmetry of Tobei returning home that I would miss. All of them being there but one of them not having his heart in it — I would find that more powerful and realistic than Tobei refusing to return home, which I have to assume would mean abandoning Ohama to her fate as a prostitute, or maybe her suicide. That would be so cold-hearted as to make him a cardboard villain.

Also, I see connections between this movie and parts of Oshima’s Gohatto, particularly the dreamlike ending and his use of interiors as framing devices or prosceniums. I think I’ve remarked on this before. While this might not be a conscious influence, it seems to me to be there.


 

#15


Ugetsu



Lawless, I find your comparison of Ugetsu and Sansho interesting, although I would say personally that the reason I prefer the former is less to do with the artistic intentions of the director, and more to do with the script and editing, which I think flows better (in other words, it allowed me to suspect my disbelief and cynicism), and is less didactic. Perhaps its really down to not just my preferences, but just my mood when watching the films. When I first watched Ugetsu, I floated along willingly (a bit like Genjuro when meeting Lady Wakasa!), while I find the clunking gears in the plot of Sansho distracting, making me question more what I was watching, which I think is always fatal for the enjoyment of a film.

As I mentioned previously, I find it hard to suspend disbelief for Genjuro’s capitulation to Lady Wakasa and her attendant. Artistically, the way Mizoguchi filmed it and left it open-ended works, but it makes the story confusing. I spent a certain amount of time trying to puzzle out how it was that Genjuro saw Lady Wakasa and her attendant: were they figments of his imagination? Ghosts? Did they enchant him or did he unconsciously case a spell on himself? Having thoughts like that during a movie means the director’s lost my attention.

I didn’t really have that problem – I thought it was straightforward enough that he was under a spell. From reading the more extreme eulogies to the film from Western critics (including David Thompson, who compares it favorably to Rashomon), this aspect seems to have convinced them that they were watching a master director play with the notions of reality:

Rashomon is a simpleminded proof of an idea that informs many films. At that period of his career, Kurosawa was visually inventive, but Rashomon is as obvious as it sounds in synopsis. Whereas, Ugetsu simply incorporates the princeiple that people see events differently – as, incidentally, do Strangers on a Train, Exodus, Citizen Kane, and many other films less struck by the mock-parable idea of variable truths.’ (The New Autobiographical Dictionary of Film, 4th edition p.483)

I do wonder, however, whether some western critics have over-interpreted what is simply a ghost story – the notion of spirits of the dead living among the living, and occasionally interfering in their lives is very deeply embedded in Japanese thinking (and for that matter, in nearly all non-Judeo Christian or Islamic societies). From what little I know of Japanese folklore, it is full of stories about a stranger coming into peoples lives to test them or interfere, the stranger later becoming known as a spirit (I think this is actually a very good interpretation of Yojimbo). I do wonder though if it was meant to be implied that Genjuro’s greed made him a particular target for a magic spell – the notion that he had gone outside his station, his allocated role in life would in a folkloric world make him more vulnerable to interference by the otherworld.

BTW, do either of you know the specifics of Mizoguichi’s intended original ending?

Unfortunately, I don’t, and it would be very interesting to know. Rayns suggests I think that the original ending had Genichi reject his wife and take up the life of a Samurai – I suppose this suggested that there was meant to be a contrast between Genjuro finding the ‘real’ way of living, while Genichi pursues glory, while destroying all he has left behind. I would have thought that to be consistent with the worldview of other Mizoguchi films, it would have shown Ohama living unhappily as a prostitute, while Genjuro uncaringly accumulates wealth and victory. I think the existing ending is more consistent with the Japanese notion of the wives job of controlling and civilizing their husbands, almost treating them as naughty boys when they stray.


 

#16


lawless



Ugetsu – It’s funny; I thought about including a paragraph about how the underlying stories are ghost stories and that the movie would work much better for me if that’s what, or all, it was about because the scenes at the mansion are among the most effective of the movie for me, as is the scene of Genjuro’s homecoming.

I guess I need some concrete proof that we’re dealing with ghosts and enchantment here when it starts and not just when it ends, like making it obvious that no one else at the marketplace sees or hears Lady Wakasa and her attendant and that the enchantment had already begun at that point. If he weren’t enchanted, he would have been more reluctant to follow these women home without getting some form of payment up front.

Maybe it’s the skeptic or Westerner in me, but I don’t think the combination of realism and fantasy Mizoguchi uses here is completely convincing. He needs to make it more obviously fantastic or undermine the realism more clearly. It remains ambiguous until the end. And yes, I realize that he did it for artistic reasons; I’m being a philistine and saying that it’s confusing.

I think a lot of it has to do with preferences. For the reasons listed, Sansho, which is more heroic, is more the sort of story I prefer than Ugetsu, which is more about average people thrust into unusual situations and responding poorly or with poor judgment.

While Rashomon is my least favorite of Kurosawa’s great movies, it deserves more than that quote from David Thompson gives it! Its plot puzzles me even more than Ugetsu, but that’s because it’s clear that the four witnesses and participants’ stories are mutually exclusive and can never be successfully reconciled.

In Ugetsu, there is a more or less single narrative, but it’s hard, even in retrospect, to figure out exactly when and where the line between reality and fantasy is crossed. How long ago did Lady Wakasa die? Are we seeing enchantment or dream? The enchantment within the enchantment of the empty form of her father’s helmet confuses me as well. I guess I’m complaining that the cues themselves are ambiguous and still wondering how someone who seemed fairly pragmatic and grounded could so quickly have become deluded enough to see the wreck we see later as a beautiful mansion.


 

#17


Ugetsu



Lawless

Maybe it’s the skeptic or Westerner in me, but I don’t think the combination of realism and fantasy Mizoguchi uses here is completely convincing. He needs to make it more obviously fantastic or undermine the realism more clearly. It remains ambiguous until the end. And yes, I realize that he did it for artistic reasons; I’m being a philistine and saying that it’s confusing.

From reading the many admirers of this film, it is precisely the ambiguity of the film that appeals. In the words of one writer ‘the aura of unearthliness and unholiness never quite dissipates’. In this way I think the film anticipates more modern ghost or horror films such as Sixth Sense (but in a much more sophisticated way of course).

I would say that from my knowledge of folklore, this version of a ghost story is more consistent with an older idea of what ghosts or spirits actually are – it is a relatively modern thing to think of ghosts as ethereal beings, associated with spooky music and staring eyes. In older folklore, ghosts could be the person you talk to in a bar, the person walking along the street. They were both part of normal society and outside it, and in that sense the notion of a ghost world was considered quite ‘normal’. It wasn’t associated with haunted houses, it was a constant part of life that you always had to be wary about, as ghosts liked to tempt and test the unwary. If you’ve seen last years Cannes winner Uncle Boonmee who can Recall his Past Lives, this also plays with the notion of the ghost world being a part of the real world. I think Mizoguchi portrays this dual world quite brilliantly, but it has also lured some writers and critics (i.e. Thompson and others), into overinterpreting the film as a deeper allegory into notions of reality. I think Mizoguchi was very much portraying a way of seeing that would be considered quite ‘normal’ by people from a Shito/traditional Buddhist background.

In Ugetsu, there is a more or less single narrative, but it’s hard, even in retrospect, to figure out exactly when and where the line between reality and fantasy is crossed. How long ago did Lady Wakasa die? Are we seeing enchantment or dream? The enchantment within the enchantment of the empty form of her father’s helmet confuses me as well.

I think that in a way, you are asking questions that were never intended to be answered. This is an area I’m certainly not expert on, but there is a long tradition within Asian cultures I think of times of war being times when the ghost world is ’stirred up’. Uncle Boonmee certainly addresses this (in that case, a dying man is visited by dead relatives, but it seems that guilt over atrocities committed by landowners and the government against tribal peoples in the northern mountains of Thailand is the cause of the spirits being raised). In Bao Ninh’s very disturbing book (based I believe on his real experiences as a Viet Cong soldier) The Sorrows of War there is a constant dread among the books characters (soldiers collecting the remains of war dead) of the conflict stirring up unquiet spirits of the dead within the jungle. A later Japanese film The Burmese Harp also uses this as its theme, with its rather sentimental story following an ex soldier becoming a monk in order to calm the spirits of soldiers lost outside of Japan.

In specific terms, I would interpret Lady Wakasa as an early victim of the ongoing civil wars, one who’s spirit is wandering due to a lack of relatives to keep it quiet. The villagers are aware of her, and both guilty and in fear of her. They either don’t see her, or don’t want to see her when she comes to the village, but they are aware of her presence. Genjuro is an outsider both in terms of not coming to the village, but also in terms of a man seeking to upset the natural order by becoming a wealthy merchant. As such, he is particularly prone to see and attract the spirits. In this sense, it is a more direct portrayal of the interpretation we’ve seen of Yojimbo as a marebito (spirit) invading a conflict torn town in order to punish those who do not fulfill the traditional cultural obligation to welcome strangers.


 

#18


Vili Maunula



lawless: How long ago did Lady Wakasa die?

The film actually seems to offer a fairly definite answer to your question. From what I gather, and assuming that the film follows historical reality, Lady Wakasa probably died sometime between 1570 and 1573, with the latter date also being the last possible date when the events of the film take place. The old lady she lives with mentions Oda Nobunaga as having been the cause of Lady Wakasa’s father’s death, and it was in 1570-73 that Nobunaga’s troops operated in the Omi province where the story takes place. So, she appears to be a recent departure.

Having said that, something doesn’t quite seem to add up. The old lady specifically (curiously so) says that “Because of Oda Nobunaga, the detested Odu Nobunaga, the whole house of Kutsuki was obliterated.” But historically the head of the Kutsuki clan in Omi in fact seems to have helped Nobunaga.


 

#19


Lawless



Ugetsu – I think the bottom line for me is that I’d like Ugetsu Monogotari much better if it were solely and straightforwardly a ghost story (Lady Wakasa, her attendant, and Miyagi). As it is, the ghost story doesn’t start until we’re halfway through the movie, or close to it.

Since the ghost story all has to do with Genjuro, it’s not necessary for Tobei to be anything other than a side character or comic relief. The scenes showing what happens to his wife and what a small and vile thing he had to do to achieve the status he wanted make powerful points about human (male?) venality, but if the movie is about ghosts and enchantment, those points are no longer vital.

As it is, the movie resists reframing as a ghost story because of pacing and focus, and the other things it concentrates on are so realistic and so much of a downer that they detract from the ghostly aspect of it. Maybe this is my real quarrel with the movie.

Vili – I asked the question about when Lady Wakasa died because of her anachronistic dress. I wasn’t sure which cues we should believe and had forgotten the reference to Nobunaga, which places her life and that of her attendant squarely within the Warring States period.


 

#20


cocoskyavitch



The ghost story is the best part for me as a thrill ride…it is eerie, and beautiful and evanescent. I am quite drawn to that aesthetic-clearly Mizoguchi was the master of its depiction-but I am reassured, comforted and grounded by departing from the ordinary world and returning to it-as I must guess were the original audience of Ugetsu.
I am going to restate my feelings thus: entering the strange world, and retrospectively discovering it was a dream/ghost world is very very intriguing to me. I should think an entire film set in a ghost world would be quite tiresome. One needs to feel the difference for the thrill to have its effect.
I’m gonna also confess: when I first saw the film so long ago, the scene of the father’s armor “singing” made me laugh, then creeped me out. That’s an excellent thrill ride-from absurdity to a kind of fear/wonder.


 

#21


lawless



Coco – I appreciate and agree that there needs to be some contrast between the spirit world and the ordinary world, but the setup takes too long and is too clunky for my taste. As I suggested, maybe a focus solely on Genjuro would have pleased me more.

My reaction to the father’s armor was fairly similar to yours, although I think I rolled my eyes rather than laughing. It is creepy as well. Given how hokey the concept is, I thought Mizoguchi and the people working for him pulled it off as effectively as anyone could.


 

#22


Ugetsu



I had the chance last night to see a ‘one off’ screening of Ugetsu Monogatari on the big screen. Unfortunately I don’t think it is a new print – it was a digital projection of (I think) the Masters of Cinema version and so didn’t have quite the depth you’d hope for from a good quality restoration (of course, I don’t know what the original would have looked like, but I’m assuming it had the same sort of tonal quality of Rashomon or Seven Samurai).

Its always enlightening I think to see a film in the cinema (and it was almost full), and I feel the audience was really engrossed in it. What did strike me about the film is that unlike a lot of other Mizoguchi films, the editing is seamless and flab-free – the pacing seemed perfect. One thing that is very clear on the big screen is the deliberate staginess of some scenes – for example, on the fog-bound lake when the boat and occupants are ‘faded out’ as they row into the fog, rather than disappear behind a fog bank. I assume this was a deliberate decision to throw doubt into the audiences mind about the ‘reality’ of what they are seeing. But I did enjoy it, and in particular I think that on the big screen the final scene is enormously effective – the reverse pan in the house when Genjuro returns, the first pan showing an empty house, the second one Miyagi happily cooking at the hearth is truly masterful.

And afterwards I was hungry and went to my favourite Japanese bar for some gyoza and a beer and they were showing Stray Dog! I didn’t watch it all, but the whole sense of heat and humidity from the film matched a cold autumn evening outside perfectly


 

#23


cocoskyavitch



Although not a clean print, still-you are lucky to see it big screen. As Kazuo Miyagawa was the cinematographer (he also filmed , Shansho the Bailiff, Rashomon and Yojimbo! He’s a friggin genius!!!) it is bound to be beautiful!!!!!
Your luck continued to dinner, too! What a great night!


 

#24


Vili Maunula



This reminds me that I really need to come to Dublin again.

Also, although as you know I’m not that drawn to seeing things on the big screen (especially if it means watching them with other people), when we last watched Ugetsu here in the film club, I remember that the scene with the fog made me think how I would really like to see it in the cinema.


 

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