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 in Mizoguchi and Japan, 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, Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema, 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, while Eureka’s Master of Cinema series has put it out in region 2, 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!
9 December 2011
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.