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Ugestu Monogatari: Spiritual allegory or reactionary warning about getting above your station?

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    Ugetsu

    Reading through the various writings on the film, there seem to be roughly two quite distinct interpretations of the ‘moral’ of the film, if you can put it that way.

    The most common is that the film is about greed, and the destructive effect of greed on mens minds (and implicitly it is women who both tempt them and act to control mens more destructive urges). Genjuro and Genichi appear to have been relatively normal men who have been driven almost crazy by the prospect of enriching themselves at a time of disruption and war. Genjuro’s motive seems a little more rational – he sees the opportunity to sell his products at an inflated price, allowing him to build himself up as a ‘big man’ in the village and make a better life for his family. Genichi on the other hand appears almost demented as he ignores any attempt to restrain him and seems quite willing to throw his marriage away on the slim chance of military glory. In the ‘official’ end, both learn their lessons and content themselves with more modest lives. In what presumably was Mizoguchi’s favoured ending, Genichi succeeds in his aims, but in doing so destroys all that he loves.

    Another interpretation implied in some writers is that the film is less a spiritual condemnation of materialism, and more a warning against fighting against your allotted ‘role’ in society. The film is set at a time when notoriously, the rigidity of japanese society had broken down and many an ambitious lower born man was grabbing more wealth and power. The power of the merchant class was on the rise. In other words, it was just like the post war situation in which the film was made. In this interpretation, Genjuro and Genichi are both dreamers who want to break the bounds of their feudal roles, one to become rich as a merchant rather than a humble craftsman, the other wanting to make the unheard of jump from farmer to Samurai, and not just any Samurai, but a powerful warlord. Both, in the course of the film, leap across the feudal hierarchy, and both end up suffering greatly as a result. Both end up chastened and back in their allotted roles, and apparently happier for it (the alternate ending is quite consistent with this interpretation, as it seems to have implied that Genichi’s success as a Samurai wasn’t worth it). In this view, the film is actually quite reactionary – a cautionary tale about the tallest poppy in the field getting its head lopped off.

    In the former interpretation, the film is consistent with Sato’s view of the story being steeped in Japanese and Buddhist religious traditions. It is also consistent with the general view of Western critics of Mizoguchi as being anti-feudal and in some ways a ‘progressive’ artist. The second interpretation would I think be consistent with the view of Mizoguchi as someone who (unlike Kurosawa) never let his characters escape their allotted fates, set by the Japanese social system. It suggests that in many ways it is quite a reactionary film, more a Rio Bravo than a High Noon.

    In this regard, I think its worth comparing the film to Sansho the Bailiff, in which the film exults a spiritual view of life, while still seeing resistance to evil as essentially futile. In this way perhaps Mizoguchi was having it both ways – seeing the film as both a reaction against western style materialism (the full force of consumer materialism not having yet hitting Japan), while still indicating a relatively conservative view of Japanese society – a certain sniffiness at anyone getting above their station. It does seem from what we know about Mizoguchi that he was very ‘status’ conscious. I think it is implied by some writers that in his merchant class background, he was not as much a rebel as some film writers have assumed. In this view, while he bemoaned the fate of women in the Feudal and class ridden system, he saw this as also somewhat inevitable, and never suggested a way out beyond (in his later years) taking a more spiritual and religious view of life. In this way, he would have more in common with Ozu’s generally serene but quite conservative view of the Japanese family and the ‘natural’ order than Kurosawa’s constant criticism and striving to see alternate ways of living a life.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for the summary, Ugetsu!

    From the two interpretations, I would lean towards the one that reads the film as problematising the individual’s part in society, although perhaps with a more contemporary twist than has been given by most writers on the film.

    Personally, I don’t think that the ambitions of the two male protagonists are driven by greed, either material or social. Genjuro simply sees an opportunity to make a little extra to help his family (and make his wife happier) during difficult times, while Tobei is driven by a wish to make something of himself, and to be a part of the zeitgeist of the era. Neither of these constitute as greed in my eyes. Foolishness, perhaps.

    I can in fact fairly easily understand Genjuro’s actions, while Tobei’s seem far less rational to me. Yet, I wonder if from the two characters it was in fact Tobei’s story that more strongly resonated with contemporary audiences, who may have been all too familiar with his character type from the war era. Here, I am thinking of the husbands and sons who had to abandon their families for the war effort — some doing so reluctantly, others less so.

    If you approach the film with the war in mind, and I’m not sure how you couldn’t considering that war is very much present in Ugetsu, you could say that the film is in a way similar to Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth. Just like in No Regrets, we have two male characters trying to survive through a turbulent time in history and who take courses of action that are almost completely the opposite of each other. Tobei’s story in Ugetsu is in a sense comparable to that of Noge’s in No Regrets, as both characters wish to play an active part in the unfolding of history, even if Noge’s reasons for this seem more noble than Tobei’s. Meanwhile, Genjuro does the opposite and in fact escapes from reality, partly by coincidence and partly by his own choice: he does, after all, at least on some level appear to know what really is going on with Lady Wakasa. Genjuro’s stepping away from reality is, I would argue, similar to what Itokawa does in No Regrets, suppressing his beliefs for the sake of survival.

    In No Regrets, neither Genjuro’s nor Itokawa’s choices are shown to be fully successful. The former is dead by the end of the war, while the latter has survived but done so but with a cost. The same can pretty much be said of the two men in Ugetsu: neither course of action is successful.

    Yet, the crucial question is whether the fates of the two men would have been any better had they simply stayed at home. I’m not so sure. They would have risked slavery, or being killed by the invading forces. On the other hand, at least they wouldn’t through their own actions have abandoned their families. That is, unless inaction is action, which I suppose it in the actually end is.

    The problem in Ugetsu as I see it is not caused by one’s desire to rise above one’s social position, but rather by the question whether there are any good social positions to be had during a time of war. Are any available actions good, or is the only winning move in fact not to play at all? (And if so, how?)

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    Ugetsu

    First off, sorry about the confusion with characters in my post, my mistake entirely – when I wrote ‘Genichi’ above, of course I mean Tobei.

    My post is a bit incoherent, I was really ‘thinking out loud’, hence my lack of a conclusion. I didn’t really mean it as a ‘summary’ of the critical reaction, more my general perception of the interpretations various writers appear to have put upon it. The more I think about the film, the more misguided I think that many of the attempts to interpret it as an allegory appear to be – I do think its quite a straightforward ghost story. I think this film is something of a Rorschach Test for the audience – it is so ambiguous (at least to western viewers), that it is possible to interpret it in any number of ways, and these depend very much on the viewers prejudice. Of course, such ambiguity can be a deliberate artistic decision; it can arise from a failure by the author to communicate his/her intended meaning, or it can simply be that some people are reading far too much into what was always intended as quite a simple story. I’m inclined to believe that the latter is the case with this film. Every allegorical or metaphorical interpretation of this film seems to me to be very unconvincing. I think this film is what it is on the surface – a beautiful ghost story with a rather obvious didactic ‘moral’ to it.

    The reason I raised the issue of its ‘moral’ is because it does seem that there are two obvious morals you can take from it, one being a relatively modern and ‘spiritual’ warning against greed, the latter one a more reactionary warning about getting above ones station. My feeling about Mizoguchi’s intention was that he was primarily concerned with greed, but a combination of the source material and perhaps his own deeper prejudices meant that the more reactionary moral becomes more obvious when you look at the film more deeply.

    I can in fact fairly easily understand Genjuro’s actions, while Tobei’s seem far less rational to me. Yet, I wonder if from the two characters it was in fact Tobei’s story that more strongly resonated with contemporary audiences, who may have been all too familiar with his character type from the war era. Here, I am thinking of the husbands and sons who had to abandon their families for the war effort — some doing so reluctantly, others less so.

    This is a very good point Vili, I hadn’t thought of that – from the perspective of a post war audience, it may indeed have been Genjuro who reminded them more of black marketeers and war profiteers, while Tobei, if you see him as someone caught up in a wave of martial enthusiasm, being the more honorable of the two. So again, our more distant perspective may be altering our interpretation of who is the most (or least) admirable or misguided of the pair.

    The problem in Ugetsu as I see it is not caused by one’s desire to rise above one’s social position, but rather by the question whether there are any good social positions to be had during a time of war. Are any available actions good, or is the only winning move in fact not to play at all? (And if so, how?)

    Its a good question, I wonder though, from the perspective of Japanese society whether ‘no action’ is seen as an active decision, it is more of an acceptance of your fate and position. So the ‘no action’ is the default mode within a feudal or semi-feudal state. In other words, you do what you are told, you don’t break the rules no matter what happens, and if this leads you to disaster, you accept that with good grace. So the decision you have is between accepting your fate with good grace or fighting against it, not from a palette of alternative equal actions.

    It seems to me that while Mizoguchi is frequently described as anti-Feudal and radical in his films, in fact they are not – he depicts the darker side of Japanese society very well, but his characters are striking in that they always face this with an element of resignation (in direct contrast of course to the Kurosawa heroes we’ve discussed before). I think with Ugetsu Monogatari we are seeing men fighting against their fate, but rather than improve things, they make things worse not just for themselves, but also for their families. In this sense, I think Ugetsu Monogatari can be seen as quite a conservative, if not actually reactionary film in the context of Japanese society at the time. The (perhaps unintended) message of the film, as with so many of Mizuguchi’s films seems to be: ‘The system may suck, but if we don’t stick together and follow the rules, it will suck even more’.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Of course, such ambiguity can be a deliberate artistic decision; it can arise from a failure by the author to communicate his/her intended meaning, or it can simply be that some people are reading far too much into what was always intended as quite a simple story. I’m inclined to believe that the latter is the case with this film. Every allegorical or metaphorical interpretation of this film seems to me to be very unconvincing. I think this film is what it is on the surface – a beautiful ghost story with a rather obvious didactic ‘moral’ to it.

    Putting aside the question whether it really matters what Mizoguchi’s intentions with the film were, I think Rayns in his introduction on the Eureka DVD mentions that Mizoguchi’s ambitions with the film were to make something that was part Ueda Akinari, part Guy de Maupassant, and part Salvador Dalí. Rayns also suggests that the production of Ugetsu was in many ways a calculated reaction to Kurosawa’s success in Venice with Rashomon, with Mizoguchi hoping to achieve similar success. Now, my thinking is that if his ambitions really were to put together Akinari, Maupassant, Dalí and Rashomon with Venice as his goal, he was probably attempting something a little more than a simple ghost story.

    On the other hand, I may be giving too much weight on how Rayns and Sato interpret Mizoguchi.

    This reminds me that I have noticed a strange undercurrent in pretty much everything that I have read on Mizoguchi, which seems to want to paint a picture of him as a somewhat simple yet pure artist, with plenty of determination and envy for others, but less intellectual power. While this may have been true, I honestly don’t know, sometimes I wonder if Mizoguchi’s potential intellectual side tends to be too eagerly brushed off too easily as either “transcendental”, “spiritual”, “oriental” or some other such nonsense label.

    Yet on the other hand, from the films that I have seen from Mizoguchi, the quality (apart from visuals) seems to fluctuate quite wildly, even between films that were “his projects” rather than studio-imposed ones. It makes me think whether whatever there may be in his films to intellectualise about, may in fact be more the result of his screenwriters than the director himself.

    Again, I’m just thinking aloud, with too little experience with Mizoguchi to really say anything definitive about him.

    Ugetsu: I wonder though, from the perspective of Japanese society whether ‘no action’ is seen as an active decision, it is more of an acceptance of your fate and position. So the ‘no action’ is the default mode within a feudal or semi-feudal state. … It seems to me that while Mizoguchi is frequently described as anti-Feudal and radical in his films, in fact they are not – he depicts the darker side of Japanese society very well, but his characters are striking in that they always face this with an element of resignation (in direct contrast of course to the Kurosawa heroes we’ve discussed before).

    This seems to describe Mizoguchi very well. Yet, I feel that there may be more to it. In Sansho the Bailiff, Zushio goes against his social position by not acting like a governor should, denouncing slavery among other things. In terms of social position, he pays for this dearly, just like his father had done. But in terms of personal salvation, I think that he can be seen as succeeding at least on some level. He has stayed true to his father’s ideals, even if he hasn’t done so very intelligently.

    In Ugetsu, Tobei is able to rise above his original social position, but just like Zushio, renounces it later, in order to stay with his wife (a twist in the story that I don’t quite understand — why couldn’t they enjoy his new status together?).

    In both cases, the fall from the acquired social position is due to the character’s own actions, not because of some inevitable external pressure to do so. I think Zushio and Tobei could both have maintained their higher social status, had they chosen to do so. In fact, I also think that they could have done so without necessarily feeling that they betray their ideals. In my view then, the tragedy of these characters is not so much because of some predestined social fate, but because of their lack of abilities to properly deal with the situations that they find themselves in.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili:

    I think Rayns in his introduction on the Eureka DVD mentions that Mizoguchi’s ambitions with the film were to make something that was part Ueda Akinari, part Guy de Maupassant, and part Salvador Dalí.

    My initial interpretation of what Rayns was saying here is that Mizoguchi was aiming for something quite exotic and surreal – more of a mood piece than a conventional story.

    This reminds me that I have noticed a strange undercurrent in pretty much everything that I have read on Mizoguchi, which seems to want to paint a picture of him as a somewhat simple yet pure artist, with plenty of determination and envy for others, but less intellectual power. While this may have been true, I honestly don’t know, sometimes I wonder if Mizoguchi’s potential intellectual side tends to be too eagerly brushed off too easily as either “transcendental”, “spiritual”, “oriental” or some other such nonsense label.

    To be honest, this is exactly how I tend to see Mizoguchi (partly from my interpretation of his films, and partly from the second or third hand autobiographic pieces I’ve read about him). I do think that while his films are heartfelt, I never get the impression that there is anything intellectually rigorous underneath the beauty. I always have a vision in my head of Kurosawa, Ozu and Naruse as directors who were constantly agonizing over what they were about to portray and what it means, while Mizoguchi was more interested in getting his camera movements just right. Also, while there is nothing wrong I think with an artist being apolitical, I always get the impression of something quite shallow about Mizoguchi’s concerns about women, about the underdog. I don’t mean he was hypocritical, more that his concerns were of the reactive type, i.e. ‘X is an evil, we must ban it’ as opposed to the more analytical, critical and deeper (if not necessarily correct) approach of a range of other high profile directors, in particular of the generation that followed.

    Yet on the other hand, from the films that I have seen from Mizoguchi, the quality (apart from visuals) seems to fluctuate quite wildly, even between films that were “his projects” rather than studio-imposed ones. It makes me think whether whatever there may be in his films to intellectualise about, may in fact be more the result of his screenwriters than the director himself.

    I do think this is an important point. Of course, consistency can be over-rated, but I think the Eureka releases, which pair off his most famous films with less famous ones do us quite a favour in showing just how variable the quality of his films were. I think its quite striking to compare the rather haphazard range of themes and quality of his films to the other big names of the period. Of course, much of this is down to the nature of his relationship with the studio, but I don’t think it can always be attributed to this – there are plenty of examples in film history of good film makers taking on bland studio genre projects and making them something special. It does seem to me that his range of talents and vision were more limited than other film makers – match him with a great script and a good cast and he would do an amazing job. Match him with a poorly thought through script and a lesser cast, and the result wasn’t much better than you’d expect from a hack director (albeit always with his lovely flowing camerawork). He was, in short, more of a craftsman than an artist and in that sense, a good argument against a pure auteur theory of Japanese film making of the period. Put another way, we need to give more credit to his collaborators.

    In Ugetsu, Tobei is able to rise above his original social position, but just like Zushio, renounces it later, in order to stay with his wife (a twist in the story that I don’t quite understand — why couldn’t they enjoy his new status together?).

    This puzzled me too. It seems to me that if the film ended with a contrite Tobei, taking his wife to a new life as the wife of a wealthy, and somewhat wiser samurai, that would be both a happy ending, and also quite a subversive one (I could imagine directors like Ichikawa or Itami using an ending like this to send a wry wink to the audience that for a poor man, a little bravado, deceit and lying goes a long way). The fact that Mizoguchi wanted a more conventionally tragic ending, while the studio wanted an ending where the couple were reunited as poor farmers, says something about the fairly establishment (or whatever the opposite of ‘subversive’ is) instincts of both Mizoguchi and the studio.

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