Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #50 (tied with City Lights and La Jetée)

As previously discussed, Japanese cinema made its breakthrough into the global conversation in the 1950s, namely thanks to the successes of filmmakers Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi. While Kurosawa has maintained a legacy as a premiere filmmaker through the present, and Ozu has seen his reputation rise in estimation over the past few decades, Mizoguchi has curiously become an afterthought in discussions of Japanese cinema. The acclaim for Ugetsu Monogatari, routinely considered Mizoguchi's best film, can attest to this trend. The film claimed the Silver Lion Award for Best Direction at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, and landed in the top ten of Sight & Sound Magazine's decennial list of the greatest films of all time in 1962 and 1972. The film was actually more popular abroad than it was at home, a phenomenon that film historian Tadao Sato equates to the film (unintentionally) being marketed as representing an "exotic" Japan to Western audiences. Since those early days, however, Kurosawa and Ozu have dominated film classes about Japanese cinema, while Mizoguchi remains something of a curiosity that only hardcore cinephiles seek out (Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese have been champions of the film in the present).


Ugetsu Monogatari deserves to be a greater part of that conversation, however. The film, set in the midst of a civil war in Omi Province in the 16th century, follows two couples that live along the shore of Lake Biwa. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is a potter who sees the ongoing role as an opportunity to increase his profits, though his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) warns him that doing so is dangerous. Similarly, Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) wants to enlist and become a samurai warrior, but his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) protests that he will get himself killed. When the raiding army invades their village, the couples flee together across the lake. An encounter with the lone survivor of an attack sees them split up, with each one facing the trials of war on their own.

At it's heart, Ugestu is a ghost story: the spirits of the fallen surround these characters, particularly Genjuro, who unwittingly marries deceased noblewoman Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo). However, the specter of Japan's then-recent bellicose past also haunts the film, and the result is a film with a startlingly feminist rebuttal to the bullheaded-masculinity of warfare.

More after the jump.


The central conflict is set up almost immediately: the two men are eager to take full advantage of the war to benefit themselves (and only themselves, it should be noted), while the two women fear for everyone's safety. There's a clear distinction between each character's motivation here, too. Genjuro is seeking monetary gain and wealth, while Tobei seeks the honor and reputation that comes with holding the samurai rank. In both cases, the men are seeking personal gain in a singularly selfish way; neither seems to acknowledge their wives in their victorious scenarios. Miyagi and Ohama, however, are concerned with the safety of the group, fearing that engaging with violence - particularly in a war as brutal as this one - will only result in suffering and destruction.


Mizoguchi wastes no time in setting up the story as a post-war pacifist fable, a structure that's borrowed from the film's source material, author Ueda Akinari's collection of stories by the same name. It begins with the man the group meets on the lake. The scene is shot through a fog, with Ohama's disembodied voice signing heard before their boat is seen. When the characters come across the phantom boat, it appears at first to be an apparition, set out to provide a warning to them of what lies ahead. Though the man turns out to be just as real as Genjuro and company are, Mizoguchi has ensured that the general creepiness of this encounter doesn't diminish the man's ominous pleas.

During the film's writing process, writers Matsutaro Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda were given one critical instruction by Mizoguchi for the film's dialogue. He told them:
"The feeling of wartime must be apparent in the attitude of every character. The violence of war unleashed by those in power on a pretext of the national good must overwhelm the common people with suffering - moral and physical. Yet the commoners, even under these conditions, must continue to live and eat. This theme is what I especially want to emphasize here. How do I do it?"
The answer to his query is to let each character feel the destructive impact of war. Tobei makes several attempts to appeal to the army to enlist him, but is rebuffed at every turn. It is only when he comes upon the beheading of a general for the opposing army that he gets in, and only then it is by stealing the decapitated head and presenting it as his own spoils of combat. Through his duplicity, he achieves the fame and honor that he had longed for, riding into towns on his own horse and in his own armor.

However, Ohama's fate is far more perilous. After being separated from her husband at a marketplace, she wanders the countryside searching for him, unaware that he has run off to join the army. While searching for him, she encounters a group of soldiers, who surround her and rape her. Tobei, much later in the film, discovers her in a brothel. She's turned to a life of prostitution; or, rather, she's been forced into this life by virtue of her encounter with the soldiers. Tobei assures her that he will buy back her honor; the film's last visit with them finds them heading back to their village on Lake Biwa together, with Tobei tossing his armor into a river.

Tobei's and Ohama's plight scratches at some curious ideas, most notably the way that Tobei never really earns his "honor" in any case. Tobei's desire to join the fight, solely on the basis of his own selfishness in the thin guise of a cause, parallels the sense of belligerent nationalism that spread through Japan in the early 20th century. Ohama, then, becomes a stand-in for the effects of that unbridled will to fight: her body, her honor, and her spirit violated and destroyed, and not by opposing forces, but by warfare itself.

This is taken to a greater extreme with Miyagi, who becomes a casualty of the war. With Genjuro having disappeared, Miyagi is left alone with their son in the village of Nakanogo. The village soon comes under attack, and Miyagi and her son attempt to hide from the raiding soldiers. They're discovered by soldiers searching for food, and when she chooses to fight back, she's stabbed and left to die with her son still clutching to her back.

Genjuro, meanwhile, has married himself to Lady Wakasa, whom he later discovers is actually a spirit haunting the building in which he's residing. He paints Buddhists texts on his body in an attempt to exorcise her, but instead throws himself out of the mansion. When soldiers awaken him the next day, they take everything he has, and he realizes that the mansion had been destroyed weeks earlier. He returns home to find Miyagi and his son, but only later discovers that his wife was an apparition. His son had been cared for by a village elder, while his wife had died.


Genjuro's journey provides the most feminist reading of Mizoguchi's film. Genjuro is lured into the war by the promise of profits, and abandons his wife and child for a woman who will provide him with a life of luxury. However, his greed costs Miyagi her life, and he's left without a family. It's Miyagi's death that lingers the most, however. Both she and Ohama are depicted as having no agency, being forced to go with their husbands on their adventures and then abandoned when their courses are divergent. In both instances, the women are physically brutalized by the war, courtesy of Ohama's rape and Miyagi's stabbing. They suffer the most from warfare, as their bodies become casualties of male machismo.

It's also telling that the spirits that haunt the film are all women. They are the specters that lurk in the background, restless reminders of the destruction of men. Mizoguchi implicates men in the destruction that befell Japan during World War II, and his argument seems to be that if it wasn't for hyper-masculine senses of honor and national pride, then millions of lives could have been spared, and average citizens could have continued their everyday lives. Instead, the nation was left wounded, defeated, and without a clear sense of identity.

There's no doubt that Ugetsu was designed by Mizoguchi to address the post-war malaise that had afflicted Japan in the 1950s. What's surprising, though, is how the film takes on a feminist approach to pacifism and the destructive forces of war, letting the women in the film haunt the men whose masculinity has doomed them. This reading makes the film's powerful anti-war message all the more so.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": City Lights (1931)

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