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Ugetsu: Ghosts and History

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    lawless

    This may be an awfully slight reed on which to base this thread, but did it seem strange to anyone else that Lady Wakasa and her attendant were attired in out-of-date garb? It looks like Heian-period garb and makeup to me, with the hat, veil, and eyebrows being particularly notable. (As an aside, although I can’t quickly find anything to confirm it, I believe Rashomon is set in the Heian period as well.)

    If I’m right that they’re wearing what would be the equivalent of wearing Victorian, or better yet, Colonial clothing today, shouldn’t that in and of itself be a suggestion to both Genjuro and the audience that there’s something weird about these women? The story seems to suggest that Lady Wakasa of more recent vintage than that. The Heian era ended in 1185, well before the 16th century Warring States period depicted here. Does this also do something to undermine the apparent historicity of the film and the effort to which Mizoguchi went to ensure historical accuracy in costumes, set design, and decoration?

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    Ugetsu

    It never occurred to me watching it, but I think you are right that there are deliberate anachronisms in the film. I know little about Japanese clothing styles through the centuries, but I think perhaps its true to say that certain levels in society maintained certain ‘styles’ as a symbol of their status, so perhaps what would be considered a Haian way of dressing would still have been used by ladies of a certain status at a much later date? And of course the Noh theater preserved certain styles through a very long period of time.

    In this way, perhaps certain ways of dressing were never ‘lost’ in the way they were in Europe (as seen by generations of European painters up to the 19th Century always dressing historical characters in then contemporary clothing). I’m just speculating, but maybe for this reason the use of anacronistic garb would not be seen by typical Japanese in the same way that a European would react if someone walked down the street wearing a doublet with codpiece.

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    Vili Maunula

    I know absolutely nothing about historical fashion styles in Japan (any suggestions for a good reading in the topic?), and simply assumed lady Lady Wakasa’s dress, make-up and movements were borrowed from Noh theatre. Not that I know all that much about Noh, either.

    Rashomon indeed takes place towards the end of the Heian period. The Rasho gate fell into disrepair in the 12th century. I know this because I wanted to visit the place when I was in Kyoto, and got an amused reply when I asked where it is.

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    Ugetsu

    I’ve just watched Tony Rayns introduction and he implies that the choice of costume for Lady Wakasa was influenced by Noh – it was a deliberately surreal (theatrical) touch. Looking at the market scene it seems to be indicated that nobody else sees Lady Wakusa and her attendant apart from Genjuro.

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    Ugetsu

    One other point I think about the dress of Lady Wakasa and her attendant – one of the curious things about the script I think is that it is strongly suggested that Genjuro suspects she is a spirit even before he meets the priest (he says on the scene by the lake that ‘he doesn’t even care if she is a spirit’). I think the dress was very much intended to signal to the audience from the very beginning that she is a spirit, it is the hapless Genjuro who is so mesmerized by her that he ignores all the warning signs.

    It raises for me the interesting idea that while western audiences were ‘surprised’ at the revelation that Wakasa turns out to be a spirit, the original Japanese audience would not have been – while the reverse may have been the case of his wife in the end, as we are not given the same visual signals that she is just a spirit, as she is tending the home as usual. It is the Western audience who would have picked up on her mysterious appearance, while the domestic audience may have just thought that she survived the attack.

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    Vili Maunula

    It raises for me the interesting idea that while western audiences were ‘surprised’ at the revelation that Wakasa turns out to be a spirit, the original Japanese audience would not have been – while the reverse may have been the case of his wife in the end, as we are not given the same visual signals that she is just a spirit, as she is tending the home as usual. It is the Western audience who would have picked up on her mysterious appearance, while the domestic audience may have just thought that she survived the attack.

    That’s an interesting suggestion. On the other hand, I think that the way Mizoguchi sets the scene for Miyagi’s ghost’s appearance should be a clear enough indication that she is a spirit: Genjuro walks in, the camera carefully shows the entire house which is dark, Genjuro walks out of the back door, the camera slowly pans back to the front door, lights come on, and Miyagi is revealed, cooking, as Genjuro steps in again through the front door. She has clearly appeared out of nowhere, as opposed to come from somewhere, and with finished food no less! I think that all this should be a clear enough signal for the audience that we are dealing with a spirit.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu

    One other point I think about the dress of Lady Wakasa and her attendant – one of the curious things about the script I think is that it is strongly suggested that Genjuro suspects she is a spirit even before he meets the priest (he says on the scene by the lake that ‘he doesn’t even care if she is a spirit’). I think the dress was very much intended to signal to the audience from the very beginning that she is a spirit, it is the hapless Genjuro who is so mesmerized by her that he ignores all the warning signs.

    I agree with you. For one thing, the Heian period — the period in which The Tale of Genji was written – is viewed as something of a Golden Age now, and probably was so viewed by the time of the Warring States/Sengoku period in which this movie is set. For another, throughout the world, dress was used as an element of social control during pre-modern periods such as this. In Japanese culture, dress was rigid and uniform. Conformity was expected, and wearing Heian period dress instead of contemporary dress outside of some sort of performance or ceremony, or wearing clothes inconsistent with one’s station in life, would likely have resulted in ostracism if not punishment.

    Vili

    On the other hand, I think that the way Mizoguchi sets the scene for Miyagi’s ghost’s appearance should be a clear enough indication that she is a spirit: Genjuro walks in, the camera carefully shows the entire house which is dark, Genjuro walks out of the back door, the camera slowly pans back to the front door, lights come on, and Miyagi is revealed, cooking, as Genjuro steps in again through the front door. She has clearly appeared out of nowhere, as opposed to come from somewhere, and with finished food no less! I think that all this should be a clear enough signal for the audience that we are dealing with a spirit.

    It was more obvious and easier for me to pick up on Miyagi’s status as a ghost than Lady Wakasa’s. My confusion stemmed from the ambiguity of the last scene we see of her: is she dead or merely wounded? The confusion is compounded because her son survives even though he’s strapped to her back. Presumably, somebody found them, maybe even before Miyagi died, and took the son with the intention of finding and reuniting him with his family or village.

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    Vili Maunula

    lawless: My confusion stemmed from the ambiguity of the last scene we see of her: is she dead or merely wounded?

    The scene indeed leaves it ambiguous at that point.

    Coincidentally, this actually happens to be one of my favourite scenes in the entire film: the contrast between her death, the hopeless child, and the starving soldiers on the background who have just robbed and stabbed the woman, is golden, and says something very profound about the human nature. For me, it’s one of those moments of “pure cinema” that happen so very rarely, even with the greatest of film makers.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Coincidentally, this actually happens to be one of my favourite scenes in the entire film: the contrast between her death, the hopeless child, and the starving soldiers on the background who have just robbed and stabbed the woman, is golden, and says something very profound about the human nature. For me, it’s one of those moments of “pure cinema” that happen so very rarely, even with the greatest of film makers.

    The scene is wonderful. I will leave detailed comment to someone who knows more about art than I do (Coco!), but it immediately reminded me of those late Medieval/early Rennaissance paintings from Breugal or Bosch that show multiple vignettes of life in a great panorama of flattened perspective. I wonder if there is an equivalent tradition in Japanese art, or if he took the idea from European Art? I think this is also something Kurosawa used later with Red Beard.

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