An essay in the uncanny: Ugetsu Monogatari

In our Spring 1962 issue, this in-depth look at Mizoguchi’s now-seventy-year-old ghost tale heralded it as “possibly the greatest” of the Japanese master’s films.

23 March 2023

By Eric Rhode

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
Sight and Sound
This feature first appeared in the Spring 1962 issue of Sight and Sound

Kenji Mizoguchi is generally recognised as one of the masters of the cinema. In France he is a prize pet in the Cahiers menagerie. Over here his Ugetsu Monogatari took fourth place (with Greed) in the Sight and Sound critics’ poll [of 1962]. At the same time only one of Mizoguchi’s films has been distributed commercially in this country: Street of Shame. Not unpredictably, this sensitive study of geisha life was billed as a second feature to a nudist travelogue and played for a roaring six months. Now, six years after Mizoguchi’s death, we may be allowed a more serious opportunity to appraise his talent since Ugetsu, one of the last and possibly the greatest of his eighty-eight films, is finally being shown commercially in London.

This Ugetsu is an essay in the uncanny: an unearthly fable, uncanny because it revives in us those childhood fears aroused by a wind whistling in the chimney-piece or doors creaking in the night. Throughout it, as in a dream, we find ourselves in a mysterious, fabulous country of rivers wreathed in mists, drab dry villages, parched plains, and ghost-haunted castles. Nothing is what it seems. The geography of this country is of no map; it shifts and changes as do the ghosts in the castle. And there is no peace. A terrible unease possesses the land. Muffled gunfire troubles the air. At any moment we might expect the ground to open beneath our feet and the mountains to spout fire. Such daimios as the Lords Shibata and Nobunaga – “that hideous beast” – are unknown powers, seldom seen but always about us in the presence of their myrmidons – those spitting samurai, brigands and pirates, who pillage land and sea, rape women and sack villages.

At the centre (or is it the periphery?) of this nightmarish world rides a sanctuary of apparent calm. In one of a cluster of hovels live two potters, Genjuro and Tobei. Though their existence is hard and poverty-stricken, they are not without the comforts of family life. Genjuro adores his perfect wife Miyagi and his child; Tobei has arrived at a working relationship with his less perfect Ohama. This stability is reassured by their few possessions, the rice and flour which sustain them and the wheel and clay which provide them with a pittance of gold. Yet this stability, as we soon realise, is illusory, for the natural order on which it is based has been disturbed. Miyagi, the perfect wife, sees clearly how war has changed the spirit of man by arousing in him a desire for a different life; and she pleads with her husband to accept his lot and try to find happiness through his work. In effect, Miyagi here states the theme of the film: that human wishes are illusory and inevitably lead to disaster. As the story demonstrates, all the characters save for her yearn for what they naturally should not have, and all of them achieve their ambitions at far too heavy a cost.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

Marauders descend upon the hovels and with relish begin to sack them. And so the potters and their families take flight, leaving behind of necessity a kiln of baking pots. Nothing is certain: the possessions which gave them confidence are as insecure as the spirit of man, and as easily broken. In a sequence of great beauty, Mizoguchi shows us the flight of the refugees from the ruined village. As always, his effects are simple and original: a static long shot of villagers streaming from right to left through high reeds gives way to a diagonal tracking shot of their squatting in a declivity – a transition which may sound obvious, but which only a master director could bring off as breathtakingly as it is done here. The satisfied marauders leave the village, and the potters creep back: to their delight, they find their kiln undamaged.

This episode is best described as an exposition; for by establishing the general insecurity, the disorder of nature within and without the soul, it does no more than foreshadow the plot, which now begins. The potters, frightened by the thought that the kiln might all too easily have been destroyed, determine to market their wares as soon as possible. And yet, with barbarians lurking behind every bush and tree, how are they to make their way to the city? Discovering a small pirogue, they decide to travel by water, and so push out into the lake. The journey is eery; the lake is so dark, misty and forbidding that the traveller might take it for Lethe, the river of death. Not unexpectedly, when a prow glides up through the mist, the potters assume it to be a phantom ship and its sole slumped passenger to be a ghost. This irony is a typical misunderstanding in a film where nothing is what it seems. For the passenger in fact is all too human and has been mortally wounded by pirates; and, before their boats swing apart, he woefully warns the potters of the dangers of the lake. Genjuro rightly sees this omen as evil. He lands his wife and child on the bank and then proceeds with Tobei and Ohama to the market. What he does not realise is that the omen is a warning against the separation of families and not against the threat of pirates.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

As in a Jacobean play, the action now splits into plot and subplot, in each of which the two potters take separate parts as protagonists. Both plots are variations on the main theme and parallel each other in numerous ways. Broadly speaking, they both describe how a man may be seduced by an ideal of perfection, how he cheats to realise it, and how, as he discovers the falsity of the ideal, he must pay a heavy price for having been both ambitious and dishonest. In the subplot, for instance, war has aroused in Tobei an obsessive desire to become a samurai, to follow the formal life of a warrior. In the city he is able to achieve this, for by the sale of pots he makes sufficient gold to buy himself a suit of samurai armour. Luck is with him: by chance he is the only witness to the decapitation of a war-lord. Stealing the dead man’s head, and somewhat pusillanimously stabbing the executioner in the back, Tobei then trots off to a rival war-lord and offers him the severed head. This is a witty move. Tobei is at once proclaimed a hero and appointed captain to a troop. Thus, a trifle shabbily perhaps, his ambition is realised. The price he has to pay for this is that his deserted wife is left a prey to other samurai. Staggering across a plain she is accosted by four oafs who drag her into a conveniently empty palace and rape her.

Mizoguchi shows here by a visual parallel – the scene in which gold is scattered over the raped Ohama mimes the scene in which Tobei is paid for his service – how both husband and wife have been degraded by the husband’s ambition. And there are other, more abstract parallels. Throughout Ugetsu the effects of war and money are shown as similar and disastrous, though Mizoguchi never explains in what way this is so. Later, in a moment of great anguish, Ohama, who has become a prostitute, meets Tobei accidentally in a geisha house and asks him to buy her service. By the prows of two beached pirogues they act out a reconciliation: Tobei admits, a trifle implausibly I think, his folly and the two of them return to their hovel, hoping as Ohama says that “our sufferings were not in vain.”

This robust subplot is woven into the more delicate texture of the main plot, which, superficially, has quite a different story. While selling his wares in the market-place, Genjuro is approached by two women. One is a beauty, the crane-like Lady Wakasa, the other a senile nurse-attendant, who asks Genjuro to deliver a large number of his goods to the Wakasa residence. Genjuro, attracted by the Lady, willingly agrees. At her magnificent castle, the hopelessness of their desires becomes plain: as much as he wishes to possess the perfection of the Lady, she wishes to learn the secrets of his art. Both these desires are impossible and are, in a sense, intimations of danger. Yet Genjuro is so enchanted by the world he has entered that he does not realise how sinister it is. This atmosphere of doom is skilfully built up by Mizoguchi as the Lady Wakasa sings to the potter:

“The best of silks, of choicest hue; May change and fade away; As would my life, Beloved One; If thou shouldst prove untrue…”

As she sings the camera pans rapidly around the room, and from a dark samurai mask comes a low coarse laugh. The nurse hastily explains away this strange noise by telling Genjuro that it is made by the Lady’s dead father, who is showing, in a fashion, his approval of her lover. Whereupon the Lady asks Genjuro to marry her; and he, without admitting that he is married already, happily concurs.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

The love scenes that follow are as stylised as a Hokusai print. First: a rock-pool and the lovers slide towards each other through curlicues of steam. Then: a lawn, and far away from us on a white silk carpet the lovers chase each other, their stiff robes twirling about them. A close-up of their restless faces against the sky is followed by another long shot of the lawn and the lovers embracing. Yet, while this frolic is going on, Genjuro is still paying for his idyll. His wife, returning home from the lake, is laid upon by brigands and murdered for the sake of a few crusts of bread. And disillusionment is at hand: a priest tells him that since Lady Wakasa is a ghost, he will be dragged through the gates of the dead if he does not give her up. A confrontation takes place. The nurse-attendant admits that the Lady is not real, as none of them are. She is the ghost of a girl who died young and who has returned to the world to find the love she was denied. Genjuro, having suppressed a pang of pity, takes up a sword and in a strange and almost balletic sequence drives the ghosts out of the castle. In doing this, he accidentally falls and knocks himself out. On returning to consciousness, he finds the castle has become a charred ruin, and has been so for years. Apparently he has already entered the world of the dead. “The best of silks fade away,” sings a remembered voice. Perfection is unattainable and all is a dream.

So Genjuro returns at dusk to his family and asks for a forgiveness which is freely given. Yet he still lives in illusion. The next morning he is told by neighbours that his wife is dead and that it must have been a ghost who welcomed him back. The two plots now unite again, as Genjuro and Tobei return sadly to work. All is not lost, however, for one of the main points of the film is that man must learn how illusion is a part of reality. As he works at his pots, Genjuro hears the voice of his dead wife, telling him that she will always be with him, that her memory will be his inspiration. And so, with these words, piety has been restored and the theme has fulfilled itself. As Genjuro’s child lays flowers on its mother’s grave, Mizoguchi cranes up his camera so that we see, in a distant field, two men tilling the soil. With this, as it were, inverted cadence, the master brings his film to a close.

In the West we are inclined to be defensive about the supranatural. Although from the spate of films dealing with vampires and outer space it is clear that we have an appetite for it, no one finds this appetite reputable. Our characteristic response to works of this kind is ambivalent: as much as we may enjoy them and call ourselves addicts, we still have feelings of mild guilt and speak about them as if we were victims of some fashionable vice. For the same reason, the intention of the people who make these films is as ambivalent as our response; their treatment of the supranatural tends to be both spoofing and ponderous. The genre, in fact, is the most difficult in the business, and it is hard to think of any top-line director in the West (Franju perhaps excepted) who would think of risking his reputation by trying to work within it. If by chance one of them were tempted to do so, I very much doubt whether he would treat his subject with anything like Mizoguchi’s seriousness.

Why is this? It is not as though we were short of material. In English literature alone, the legends of Malory, or The Lord of the Rings, or Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, to give a few examples, all have latent cinematic ideas. Why are producers inhibited in taking them up as projects? The reason, I think – and this is why they are so awkward in their handling of the genre – has to do with the way they view reality. “Reality, as conceived of by us, is whatever is external and hard, gross, unpleasant,” wrote Lionel Trilling regretfully in The Liberal Imagination. Though this censure may no longer be true of the best novels being written now, this limited conception of reality still seems omnipresent in the cinema and conditions the structure of most films. Consider, for instance, the techniques employed to create character. For the most part, such techniques are simple, schematic, and in no way take into account the inner world of the individual. And yet, until we understand this inner world, the actions of human beings are barely comprehensible. For the phantasies, of which this inner world consists, are the primary content of unconscious mental processes and condition the behaviour of even the most “normal” person.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

This is probably what Ibsen meant when he wrote: “Life is a contest between the phantoms of the mind” – a remark which, I think, goes a long way towards explaining why Ibsen’s realism has so much substance, and why the tensions between his characters have such depth. Against this richness, the realism of many so-called realistic films appears thin, for the very reason that these films do not take seriously enough into account the phantoms of the mind. Since phantasy is an essential part of the total world, we crave, however vicariously, to make up for its loss. And so, if we cannot have a fullblooded realism, we can at least supplement our normal fare with a relish of vampires and flying saucers. Mizoguchi, however, does not appear to be inhibited by such an impoverished realism. The conventions he uses – of the fable – allow him to create both a world of actuality, in which such urgent problems as the fear of war and the lack of money are made vivid and true, and a world in which the phantoms of the mind are given full play. In doing so, he reminds us indeed that these two worlds are interdependent.

Ugetsu, as I have said, is an essay in the uncanny: that is, it preserves a surface of ordinary everyday happenings whilst at the same time creating a childhood world of animistic fears, so that the predicaments of the characters are plausible both in naturalistic terms and in terms of the rich, more obscure movements of the mind. This dualism is both established and sustained by the conservatism of Miyagi. For when she asks her husband to accept his lot and to disregard the itch of ambition, she does in effect voice the theme on which the conventions of the film are based. Life is for her, as for Edmund Burke, a covenant between the dead, the living and the unborn; our duty therefore is not to rebel against the parental images, but to accept tradition and honour the dead.

Within the context of this theme the convention of the ghosts becomes plausible, for they represent the manner in which the past, with all its phantom memories, desires and histories, plays a vital part in the present and gives it meaning. Whether or not we find this conservatism repugnant, we must admit that it allows Mizoguchi the chance to realise vividly a number of humanist truths about the nature of inspiration, the interplay of motive and ideal, and the importance of piety (“a reverence for life”). Significantly, one of the finest of humanist films, Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp, is a fable with a theme identical to this. The paradox may well be that liberal humanism can only work under these conservative conditions.

Not surprisingly, the realism of Ugetsu is close to the realism of Greek drama. And this is not fortuitous. In his film Mizoguchi depends on the Noh theatre, both for his type of plot and for the style in which he composes his images. And the Noh theatre, as Ezra Pound pointed out, has similarities with both the Greek and the Shakespearian drama; for all of them are developments of the miracle play. Ugetsu is Shakespearian in the function of its images (Mizoguchi uses the symbol of war in much the same way as Shakespeare uses the symbol of storm), and in its double plot; and Grecian in that its ghosts play the same part as do the gods in Greek mythology, and that its unity is built up around a single moral conviction. Moreover, I believe that Mizoguchi would have agreed with Aristotle that a work of art should imitate the movements of the mind and not an ordering of facts; for it is in this sense, above all, that his realism is classical.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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