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Influences on the New Wave: Thinking About Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu”

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Ugetsu Monogatari

Ugetsu Monogatari

This post is the first in a series of essays for The Cineastes group. Ugetsu was curated by Matthias at Framed. You can find links to the other articles in the series from here or at the end of this article.

In 1959, the year Les Quatre Cents Coups took Cannes by storm, officially kicking of the Nouvelle Vague, Francois Truffaut listed his top 10 films of the year in Cahiers du Cinema. Among them, and second only to Ingmar Bergman’s Brink of Life, was Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari, a ghost story of breathtaking visual beauty.

La Japanoise

Ugetsu was first released in Japan in 1953, but wasn’t officially released in Europe until the late 1950s.  My rather shabby BFI copy was perhaps not the best translation (I get the feeling from reading some of the other Cineastes blogposts that the Criterion version might be slightly more poetic), but regardless, it was hard not to be impressed.

I suppose I should confess that I am not an expert on Japanese cinema or culture. I did have a friend once in college who was really into anime and spoke Japanese, and through her I got a brief glimpse into a world of baroque fashion and bizarre but wonderful art cartoons for grownups. When I was living in Italy, I used to camp out at the British Institute Library and read whatever books I could find. One of my favourites was The Pillow Book of Sei Shonogan, written in 1002 AD and, I remember, a book which struck me as being both a beautiful and poetic take on prosaic Imperial court life, and also an illuminating insight into just how civilised and almost modern Japanese culture was at a time when Aethelred was out cleaving the Danes.

Observe this passage, which reads almost like a more aesthetic version of something by contemporary poet Mike Topp (I’m thinking “Aqueduct Quatrains” — scroll down) or a short story by Richard Brautigan.

Words That Look Commonplace but That Become Impressive When Written in Chinese Characters:

Strawberries
A dew-plant
A prickly water-lily
A walnut
A Doctor of Literature
A Provisional Senior Steward in the Office of the Emperor’s Household
Red myrtle
Knotweed is a particularly striking example, since it is written with the characters for “tiger’s stick.” From the look on a tiger’s face one would imagine that he could do without a stick.

My general impression of Japanese culture, then, has for a long time been of a people who value metaphor and visual beauty as a cultural way of life. How correct this assumption is, I have no idea, because I have never lived in Japan.  But watching Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu struck the same echoing note in my brain — both bitter and beautiful, like ink and tea — and I generally pay attention to those invisible connections of memory that seem to take place just below my own consciousness.  This was a window not just into a great filmmakers imagination, but also into an imagination that was uniquely Japanese. I therefore tried, with some degree of humility, to digest it with an open mind, although also mindful that like Wittgenstein’s lion, I might never fully understand it in the way it was originally intended.

The Plot (WARNING: Spoilers!)

The plot of Ugetsu is both supernatural and allegorical, two intersecting faery tales of the sort you might hear while sitting cross-legged around a campfire.  We are introduced to two couples living in relative but not desperate poverty. Genjuro and his wife Miyagi, who make pots to sell in the nearby villages, and Tobei and his wife Ohama, their assistants who also help care for their young son, Genichi.  Tobei has dreams of becoming a famous samurai, while Genjuro only dreams of being rich, despite the fact that the life he has with Miyagi and their son is a happy one.

One day, Genjuro goes to the nearby village and returns with a great deal of money.  It seems that the village is preparing for war and there is such a great need for pots that Genjuro sold them all within a matter of hours.  Determined to make as much wealth as he can from the situation, Genjuro and Miyagi labour day and night to produce enough pots to take to the nearest city. There is a scene, after Genjuro has bought his wife a lovely new kimono, where Miyagi expresses doubt about their quest for greater wealth. An old man has warned her against trying to make money in a time of conflict and she says that she always thought she was happy until Genjuro suggested that money might make them happier.  Genjuro ignores her and plods on, losing his temper with Genichi when the boy tries to interrupt him from his pottery making.

Just as they finish making their pots and set them in the kiln to fire, war breaks out in the village and soldiers invade the two couples’ land.  Rather than flee with the other villagers to the mountains, Genjuro is reluctant to leave his still firing pots, certain they would be destroyed by the soldiers and unwilling to give up his dreams of riches.  While his wife and child flee, albeit belatedly, to the mountains, Genjuro stays to guard the pots, refusing the leave the kiln lest the fire go out and ruin the pots.  Eventually, Genjuro also goes into the woods, but after Tobei disappears he returns to watch over the kiln with Miyagi in his wake, only to discover that the fire has gone out.  After almost being caught by soldiers, miraculously, they discover that the pots have survived.  They manage to sneak them out but as the road to the village is not blocked, the couple, Genichi, Tobei and Ohama, decide to take the pots across a large lake where they can sell them for more money.  Ohama, the daughter of a boatman, takes them across a mist-covered lake.

They are well on their way when they encounter another boat which at first looks unoccupied, but is in fact manned by a single passenger, lying down on the floor of the boat.  They worry that he is an evil spirit, but the man instead tells them to take care, that the lake is full of pirates who stole his things and nearly killed him. The man dies, and worried for their wives’ safety, Genjuro and Tobei insist that they go back to shore.  Ohama, however, who is childless and also a fine oarswoman, refuses to leave the boat.  But because Miyagi has a responsibility to Genichi, Genjuro leaves her on the shore, promising to come back for her once he has sold enough pots to make them all rich.

Here, the story splits.  Genjuro, Tobei, and Ohama make it safely to the market in the city where Genjuro’s pottery sells very well. Meanwhile, with the village still under attack, Miyagi must go into hiding with Genichi. They are at first helped by an old woman who gives them food.  She escapes to the woods, but she and Genichi are attacked by a few stragglers from the army, who steal her food (as she protests that it is for her son!) and stab her in the stomach.  She clutches more tightly to Genichi and travels on despite her injury.

Meanwhile, back in the city, Tobei has wandered away from the market stall with some of his earnings and gets distracted by a stall displaying fine armour for a samurai.  Ohama chases after him, determined to stop him from spending their money on a useless suit of armour.  Tobei hides from Ohama, who in her mad search for her husband becomes lost amongst the crowds, unable to find her way back to Genjuro. Meanwhile, Tobei sneaks away to buy the armour and a spear, convinced that the armour will make him accepted amongst the samurai.

Ohama, still lost, finds her way to a deserted beach where she is brutally raped by soldiers who, either as an act of dishonour or confusion, throw money at her broken body.  She curses her husband, and stumbles away.

While all of this is happening, Genjuro is still at the market stall selling his pots.  A beautiful woman, Lady Wakasa, and her attendant, an old woman, approach the stall and buy some of the most expensive of Genjuro’s pieces. He is told that he must deliver the pots to Wakasa Manor, their estate, and he eagerly complies.  On the way to the manor, he imagines himself buying Miyagi a hundred beautiful kimonos with the money he will earn.  When he reaches the manor, however, he finds it nearly deserted.  Lady Wakasa tells him that soldiers have killed the other inhabitants of the manor, including her father who still haunts its walls. She claims that she and her attendant alone escaped, but that she is in great need of a man to be her husband and run the household.

Because she is very beautiful, she easily seduces Genjuro – especially when he finds that she has long been a fan of his pottery and owns many of his older pieces.  He marries her and the world seems transformed into one of pure pleasure. He forgets all about Miyagi and for a time, possibly months or even years, lives happily with Lady Wakasa, although he feels a strange, underlying feeling of unease.  One day, he goes into the city to buy kimonos and supplies for Lady Wakasa.  When Genjuro tells the seller who they are for, the seller stops talking to Genjuro, passes him the goods he has asked for and tells him to leave.  Genjuro is confused by this, but leaves the store.  On his way out of the village, he meets a wise man who tells him Lady Wakasa’s story.  The inhabitants of her manor house indeed were all killed, Lady Wakasa among them, and that she must therefore be a spirit.  The wiseman promises to help Genjuro, and draws mystic symbols all over his body for protection.

Meanwhile, after being laughed at by the samurai, Tobei ventures toward the enemy camp and hides behind a rock while a soldier mercy-kills his mortally wounded commander by beheading him.  When the soldier has turned his back, Tobei quickly leaps forth and spears him through the torso. Tobei steals the head of the war commander, and brings in back to the samurai who laughed at him.  He tells an impressive lie about killing the commander bravely in battle, and awed by his prowess, the samurai leader gives him a horse and a small attachment of men.

Genjuro returns to the Manor House with his good and Lady Wakasa is pleased. She asks him to return with her to “her homeland” (presumably the spiritworld), but Genjuro refuses, confessing at last about his wife and child.  Lady Wakasa is still determined to take him back to the spirit world and she tries to grab him, but the symbols on his body protect him.  She pleads with him, for love, to come with her. Her attendant tells Genjuro that she brought Lady Wakasa back to the real world to experience love, as she never had the chance to feel love before she died. This, however, is her only chance, and by spurning her Genjuro is condemning her to a lifetime of loneliness in the spirit world.  Undaunted, Genjuro grabs a sword and begins to threaten the spirits with it. The spirits recede into the shadows and Genjuro flees from the Manor and into the reeds outside.  He collapses from fright.

When he awakes, still clutching the sword, he is approached by a party of men who accuse him of stealing it.  When he tries to refer them to the house, he sees that all that remains in a burnt ruin.  The men explain that the house was destroyed in a war many years ago.

Meanwhile Tobei, riding proudly down the street on his horse and with his retinue, is surrounded by adoring crowds.  He is determined, however, to go home to Ohama – to show her that he has become a samurai at last.  In the streets he is stopped by a prostitute, however, who convince him to come to their brothel one last time.  When he arrives, Tobei spots Ohama arguing with another customer and realises that she has been working as a prostitute.  She is angry and bitter and tells him how he has dishonoured her, and how after he abandoned her she was forced into this life style after being taken advantage of by the soldiers.  She was happy as his wife when he was a simple peasant, but now she wants to die.  A changed man, Tobei promises to buy back her honour and we presume he sells his horse and armour as we next see the couple back on the peasant shacks where they started, albeit a bit wiser.

Genjuro also returns to the original settlement, desperate to see Miyagi and Genichi.  It is nighttime and he finds Genichi fast asleep on the floor of his old hut.  The hut is somewhat worse for wear, but Miyagi is there, sewing.  She doesn’t want to hear about what has happened to Genjuro, she is just happy that he is safe.  She tends to him quietly and convinces him to rest while she mends the kimono he bought for her.  She does not sleep, but sits quietly watching over her sleeping husband and child.

When Genjuro awakes, Miyagi is gone.  A neighbour stops by – he is looking for Genichi, who has been staying with him for the past few months (years?). He says the boy must have returned to his old home in the middle of the night.  Genjuro, confused, calls for Miyagi, but the neighbour tells him he must be dreaming. Miyagi died from the stab wound she received on her way back to the hut.

Next we see Genjuro back at work at his potters’ wheel.  Tobei and Ohama are there, as is Genichi, and we hear Miyagi’s voice, saying she will always be with Genjuro and her family, her spirit is watching over them. She tells him he is now the man she always wanted him to be.

Ghost Story & Cautionary Tale

Like Nakagawa’s Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan or Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, Ugetsu is in the tradition of the Japanese ghost story or “kaidan”.  A kaidan is not just a horror story, it is an old fashioned ghost story which carries connotations of the Edo Period of Japan (1603 – 1868), also the period in which Ugetsu takes place.  Ugetsu itself is based on a book of short kaidan stories, published in 1776 called Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) by Ueda Akinari and supposedly also, strangely, a story by Guy de Maupassant.  I was curious about these stories and how they might possibly have been woven together, so I looked them up!

The results were interesting, but not exactly what I was expecting. It seems that the film Ugetsu is mainly taken from two of the stories in the original book, “The Reed-Choked House” and “A Serpent’s Lust“. In “The Reed-Choked House” a husband returns home and is reunited for one night with the wife he has been separated from for years, then wakes to find that she is long dead. In “A Serpent’s Lust“, a man encounters a beautiful woman who is actually a demon-serpent intent on seducing him.  To Miyagi and to Lady Wakasa, the similarities are there, but loosely interpretted.

The de Maupassant story, “How He Got The Legion Of Honour“, seems only vaguely related to the film — I’m surprised its even quoted as an influence as its only relationship to the film’s story seems to be that it’s about a cowardly man who wants to wear the trappings of a soldier at any cost.  But beyond that, there is no connection.  The way in which the man achieves the medals, his circumstances, and what he learns — except perhaps for the fact that he loses his wife! — are completely different.

In other words, this is not a filmic version of a classic book.  Rather, we get the idea that in creating Ugetsu, Mizoguchi was inspired by the atmosphere of the kaidan, but that the completed work is, in fact, wholly his.  It is true that Ugetsu, like all faery tales, is essentially a moral tale about the price of greed and vanity.  But in Mizoguchi’s hands it becomes something more than just a faery tale or ghost story.  He takes these traditional forms and turns them into a kind of waking dream, something more than the sum of its parts.

Spirits and The Mist

Some movies are hinged upon plot. Some are hinged upon character. Still others are hinged upon style alone.  But Ugestu is a film that is clearly hinged upon atmosphere.  Almost every scene either evokes the thump and grit of the real world, or the swirling ethereality that is the world of the spirits.


Nearly everyone remarks upon the scene in the mists, when the four central characters first attempt to cross Lake Biwa towards Nagahama.  This sort of scene is not a cinematic first — there is a similar scene in FW Murnau’s Sunrise, for example — but it is evocative nonetheless.  Perhaps it is doubly striking because we sense in it something foreboding, a subtle change in tone in the film.  Up until this scene, the story is rooted firmly in the world of the real. The sound is mostly diagetic — footsteps running through the woods during the escape scene, the clinking of the pots. In the boat, we hear Ohama singing a ghostly, mournful song and the mists descend, as if invoked.  It is as if also she were invoking the supernatural second half of the film. Before they meet the man lying at the bottom of his boat, Miyagi prophetically remarks, “It is good we went by boat. If we had gone on foot we would be dead by now.”  She dies on foot, but the mists are the veil she passes through on route to her own death.  The boat is not only taking them to Nagahama, it is taking them to a new world, where their dreams as they know them — the dreams they discuss so cheerfully on board — will all die.  Tobei’s dream of becoming a samurai, Genjuro’s dream of wealth, Ohama’s honour, Miyagi’s life.  All of these things the mists take away.

When they meet the man at the bottom of the boat, they proclaim, “The ghost of the lake!”  He is not a ghost, but he is the omen of ghosts to come. The scenes at Lady Wakasa’s manor are not bloody, gorey, or horrific, but they are nonetheless haunting and strange, full of strange music, shadows, smoke, and silence. From these clues, we can ascertain early that there is something not quite right about Lady Wakasa and her attendent. Their home, despite its beauty, is like a tomb – their lives are simple and empty and free of complication, like those of the dead. But when our fears are confirmed, when we learn that she is, like her strange smoky father, quite dead, we fell less horrified and are moved to pity. She never achieved her heart’s desire, and through Genjuro’s selfishness is doomed to walk eternity alone forever.  The world of spirits in Ugetsu, then, is not a world of corpses but one of unfulfilled dreams.

But fulfilled dreams are just as dangerous.  Both Tobei and Genjuro achieve what they desire in Nagahama.  Tobei becomes a samurai and Genjuro lives as a lord in a mighty mansion, but both find these dreams fulfilled, ultimately unfulfilling.  Once he is a samurai, Tobei wanders as if a ghost, only dreamily aware that something is missing in his life, that he wants to see his wife but has no real concept of what might have happened to her.  When he finds her, he is shocked out of his “slumber”.  So what is the lesson then?  If Lady Wakasa and Tobei, three quarters of the way through the film, occupy opposite ends of the spectrum of fulfilled desire — if both, in their own way, live in a state of suspended animation, separated from real life — what relationship should we have with our dreams?  Mizoguchi’s answer may be with the final ghost of the film, Miyagi.

Miyagi is the only character in Ugetsu who transitions from living person to spirit, and when she reappears near the end of the film, she too is a creature of unfulfilled desire.  However, where Genjuro desires wealth, and Tobei desires fame, and Wakasa desires someone to love her – Miyagi only desires the safety and happiness of her husband.  She is dead, but because her desires are simple and unselfish, she is not doomed to wander eternity unfulfilled.  She remains always at Genjuro’s side, spirit world and reality intermingled.  She has lived a spiritual life, so she is able to experience an earthly death, and by straddling both worlds, and by guiding Genjuro into a similar way of being, she is fulfilled.

Mizoguchi Style & Substance

So what of the nouvelle vague?  What about this film so endeared it to them?  For all of its moral underpinnings, this is a movie that is more than a little concerned with filmic style.

The camera-work, quoted by the cinematographer as being on a crane “70% of the time” floats ghost-like in and around the scenes.   When the soldiers attack Miyagi it is not in close-up, but from a distance, like in Godard’s Les carabiniers or Week End – the mechanical, inhumanity of violence.  Godard, in fact, declared Mizoguchi “the greatest of Japanese filmmakers, or quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers.”  And is it any wonder?  Mizoguchi has used filmic style to create atmosphere and feeling which gives the viewer a portal into the meaning of the film itself, and this transformation of style to substance is one of the main goals of the directors of the Nouvelle Vague.

As a westerner watching this film for the first time, I can only guess that there are layers of reference and meaning that I will never understand.  But it’s a testament to this film that easterners and westerners alike are made to feel included in Ugetsu.  Like any fairy tale, it uses faraway places and strange experiences to tell us more about ourselves.

Other Ugetsu posts from The Cineastes:

Ugetsu@Hope Lies at 24 Frames A Second (Adam Batty)

Ugetsu@The Bronze (Adam Cook)

Ugetsu@YGG’Noise (Eugene Lee)

Ugetsu@Allan Gray’s Imagination (Edouard Hill)

Ugetsu@Filmbound (Jake)

Ugetsu@Framed (Matthias Galvin)

Ugetsu@Serious About Cinema (Tom Day)

Ugetsu@Inertial Frame (Witkacy)


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