Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

Machiko Kyo and Masayuki Mori in Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953).

When I watch a film I ususally try to know as little as possible about it beforehand to avoid spoilers to really get to experience it without any prior knowledge about plot twists and to let the film set its own mood. With Ugetsu, knowing no more than that it's a ghost story was still a bit too much and made some of it very predictable, but what I didn't expect was how much I was going to enjoy it. I will be writing some things about Ugetsu that I'm not really sure of, but one thing that I'm certain of is that Ugetsu is a truly masterful film and since it is the first film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi that I have seen I have a lot of catching up to do.

When I first watched Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog (1949) I thought that it was mainly about the characters and their choices and not so much post war Japan's influence on them, even though, of course, it is there. I felt that the characters ultimately had their lives in their own hands, that it was their own decisions that decided their fate and society was never the cause for how someone turned out. But when reading a bunch of reviews online, they mostly talked about how Stray Dog was a reflection of the times it was made in than anything else. While watching Ugetsu I thought that this is probably more of an allegory for post-war society than anything I've seen so far by Kurosawa, but after finishing it and reading some reviews, everyone was just writing about the characters as individuals and their actions as reactions to the closed off, fictional film world they live in and nothing about the film as a mirror image of Japan at the time it was made. So I'm either reading in the wrong places or I don't know what I'm talking about and right know I'm leaning towards the latter since all my knowledge of Japan does come from watching Japanese films.

In Ugetsu, war is raging, and it has opened up economic possibilities for farmer and potter Genjuro and his friend Tobei to sell their goods at the market in a nearby town. After going there the first time and having made some easy money, Genjuro and Tobei, for different reasons, are prepared to risk anything and everything for more money. Genjuro to provide a better life for his wife and daughter and Tobei to become a samurai to impress his wife. One night while their village is being raided by soldiers all Genjuro can think of is keeping his pots safe so he can sell them the next day, even risking his life while doing so. The morning after, Genjuro and Tobei heads to the market with their wives in tow but after being warned about pirates Genjuro decides to leave his wife Miyagi and their child behind because of the dangers that might lie ahead. While at the market, Genjuro is invited by a Lady Wakasa to her mansion to deliver the goods she just purchased and while there Genjuro is flattered enough by her not to return to his family. At the same time, Tobei is finding fame as a samurai by taking credit for the killing of a general that he only witnessed but didn't perform.

Perhaps the actions of Genjuro and Tobei and the results they bring could be seen as a warning against blind obsession with economic growth, and that abandoning your family could translate into giving up on your old values in favor of quickly gained fortunes in a more modern Japan. Fortunes that can turn out to be nothing but illusions that come with a higher price than expected. Ugetsu does seem like a conservative film with the point being to know your place, remain in the old and for women to stay at home at take care of children but while watching it, it felt more like a cautionary tale, not telling you to stay put, but to not rush headless into something just because you feel flattered by it or a promise of easy money.