Friday, November 26, 2010

Film #39: Ugetsu (1953)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Initial Release Country: Japan

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Pair of overly ambitious, 16th century farmers run into seriously nasty business while chasing money and glory.

Uncut Summary (The full plot, including spoilers. Fair Warning)

In 16th century Japan, the land is torn by civil war. In a tiny village, two neighboring farmers, Genjuro and Tobei seem to have the necessities – land to tend and loving wives. Genjuro even makes pottery in his spare moments, which he sells for extra money. Despite having their basic requirements satisfied, both Genjuro and Tobei seek more.

With a far-reaching civil war nearing their village, the two men see a chance to chase their ambitions. Though the village head cautions them to stay with their lands and families, Genjuro and Tobei make for a nearby city. Genjuro hopes to sell his wares for a hefty profit, and Tobei dreams of finding a lord under whom he can become a great samurai. Genjuro does make a tidy sum selling his pottery, but Tobei finds only bitter disappointment. He finds a general and throws himself at his feet, only to be mocked and pushed away. He is taunted due to being a peasant and not even having a spear or armor to fight with.

On returning to their wives in the village, the men undergo a change. Having tasted some financial success, Genjuro begins work on a massive amount of new pottery, with a plan to sell it for a greater profit in a much larger city. Tobei, still tasting his humiliation, is far from discouraged and assists Genjuro with his pottery. His hope is to be able to afford the armor and spear he needs to join an army and find martial glory.

Gejuro and Tobei take their families with them to chase their dreams.

On the day that the two men finish their batch of plates, cups, and other earthen wares, the village is attacked in a nighttime raid by one of the nearby armies. Genjuro and Tobei, with their families, manage to escape capture and to save the pottery. In a difficult moonlight sojourn, they run across various victims of the armies, but eventually make it to the largest city.

In the city, things finally start to look up. The men's pottery is selling very well in the hustle of the market. Then, Tobei sees the object of his desire – a stately general whom he wishes to follow. He grabs a fistful of his and Genjuro's coins and runs madly after the general, despite his wife Ohama's pleading that he stay with her. Tobei evades her, buys the required spear and armor and abandons his wife.

Back at his stall, Genjuro continues to sell his pottery when a beautiful noblewoman, Lady Wakasa, appears with her elder handmaiden. Genjuro, who is stunned by the Lady Wakasa's looks and bearing, sells them several items and is told to deliver them to the Wakasa estate just outside of town.

Without his wife, Miyagi, or child, Genjuro delivers the pottery to Lady Wakasa, who invites the humble craftsman inside her home. She showers Genjuro with praise for his goods, and Genjuro expresses the honor he feels at such accolades. Lady Wakasa then makes the bold proposition that Genjuro remain with her and marry her. She courts him with a traditional love song, after which she and her servant hear the voice of her long-dead father, the daimyo Kawasa. The deceased patriarch apparently approves of his daughter's proposed marriage to this simple farmer. Genjuro, now hypnotized by the phantasmic atmosphere and the Lady's strange beauty and sorrow, accepts and stays.

Their husbands now in the throes of military and marital glory-seeking, Ohama and Miyagi are left to fend for themselves. Tobei's wife Ohama is soon beset by a gang of thugs who rape and humiliate her. Miyagi and her son try to make their way back home, but have to fend off starving transients and other peasants. The women are surviving, but only with the greatest of perseverance.

Tobei eventually gets his chance. He happens across an injured general who has just been willfully beheaded by his lieutenant. Tobei rushes in, steals the general's head, and presents it as a trophy to a rival general. He is then showered with a title, a horse, and vassals. With his new platoon, he goes to celebrate in a local brothel, where he finds none other than his disgraced wife Ohama, who is now a prostitute. After Ohama heaps scorn upon him, Tobei realizes the errors of his ways; the two reconcile, to a degree, and agree to head back to their village and continue to make amends.

At the Wakasa Estate, Genjuro is experiencing otherworldly delights. The grounds of the estate are heavenly, and his new wife seems utterly, obsessively devoted to him. However, he does sense that something is amiss. On his first return trip to the city by himself, a traveling monk sees Genjuro and detects what he calls “a hint of death” on him. It is revealed that the entire Wakasa family has been dead for years, and that Genjuro must be in the thrall of the demonic spirit of the Lady. The monk paints wards of protection on Genjuro's body. Upon returning to the estate, Lady Wakasa and her servant sense Genjuro's betrayal and try to tempt him to remove the wards, so the he can remain Wakasa's wife for eternity. Genjuro resists the temptation and escapes their grasp for good.

Genjuro enjoys a heavenly picnic with his spirit bride.

Back in the village, Tobei and his wife are finding a new kind of happiness. Tobei has rededicated himself to his work on his land and has abandoned any hopes of becoming a great soldier. He and his wife have found some form of peace.

Genjuro finally makes it back to his village in the deep of night, where he finds Ohama oddly awake and calmly tending the home fire while their son sleeps. Seemingly, they made it back home safely while Genjuro was in the clutches of the demon Wakasa. Genjuro expresses his relief at seeing Ohama and their son, apologizes for his foolishness, and lays down in exhaustion.

In the morning, the village head wakes Genjuro and his son. When Genjuro calls for Ohama, the confused village head tells him that Ohama has died a month prior, and that his son had been at the village head's house being taken care of. Genjuro makes the slow realization that he had been welcomed home not by his wife, by by her spirit.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing, before any research)

Pretty cool movie. I was genuinely unnerved at a few moments, too.

Really, the whole thing amounts to a supernatural cautionary tale/parable. In this sense, it wasn't too hard to see where it was going from the start. The method of getting to that ending point, though, is the strength of this movie and why I really enjoyed it.

For the first portions of the film, it just seems like two average Joe's (or Ichiro's, I guess) who overreach themselves. Any viewer who's read an Aesop's fable or Grimm's Faerie Tale or two can see where it's heading for these two fellows – a painful lesson in knowing one's limitations and enjoying the good things that life has given you. In this sense, it's a very Japanese tale in that the men's ambition's are punished rather than rewarded, and this is the interesting part of the story to me.

The tale of the foolish Tobei is pretty obvious; the man is an obvious buffoon from the start, so it's no surprise that he makes bad decisions and that he and his wife suffer greatly for it. The unusual tale is the relatively upstanding Genjuro's. The man isn't necessarily avaricious. He seems to simply want to make enough money to buy his wife, whom he loves, the occasional kimono. While in a capitalistic society, such an attempt to modestly improve one's material lot in life is lauded, in the story of Ugetsu it invites demonic predation. This is actually the frightening part of the tale and what sets it apart from a more juvenile cautionary tale – Genjuro really isn't that bad a guy, but he's put through emotional hell for showing a tad of initiative.

On the horror aspect of the movie, it's incredibly effective. This is certainly not a “horror” movie, but the supernatural elements are so well-played that they are brilliant. For most of the movie, things are very straightforward, from the characters, the plot, and even the camerawork and visuals. For nearly 45 minutes, the acting and story are very naturalistic and commonplace. This is why, when Genjuro first goes to the Wakasa estate and I heard the deep, echoing murmurings of the dead general, it cut right to my gut. Following on the footsteps of a chilling song by the Lady, this whole scene is like cold, sharp razor blades tickling the back of your neck.

Here's the geisha dance that Lady Wakasa uses to lure Genjuro into her clutches. We Westerners may not find it appealing, but it has a very haunting quality due to Noh techniques of power acheived through minimalist movements and sounds:

Enhancing the effect of the supernatural portions of the movie is the cinematography. As mentioned, most of the movie is very traditional in its filming - it's solid, but nothing creative. Then, when the Lady appears, things shift. We start seeing some parts of the story from unusual angles. The costumes and set designs take on a polished, dreamlike quality. Even before Wakasa's true nature is revealed, we can sense that there is something artificial an untrustworthy about her and her home. This technique is not hard to pull off in a color film, and with modern technology, but in Ugetsu it was done in black and white. In an intellectual way, this is more impressive to me.

Ugetsu is, in my mind, a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, as impressive as some of those parts are. The story is certainly interesting, but far from novel. The dialogue is engaging, but not exactly fresh. The acting is refreshingly naturalistic, but not amazing. However, with the filming and themes providing cohesion, and the fact that the movie is a very efficient 95 minutes, I find that I'd certainly watch it again.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research)

Lots of interesting analyses written about this movie, all of which add several layers of appreciation for me.

Unlike several other films on the TIME list, Ugetsu was recognized internationally as a masterpiece right away. It's clear from this original TIME review that not only was its international release not delayed (as opposed to the years-long wait for Ikiru), but it was showered with critical acclaim.

In reading essays on the movie, a few things stand out. One is the use of camera and sound, and the way that director Mizoguchi made such effective use of distinctively Japanese artistic elements. This essay by Keiko McDonald describes how Mizoguchi drew from canvas painting, noh and kabuki elements to evoke myriad feelings, such as the connection between farmers and land, and the supernatural aspects of Genjuro's interactions with Lady Wakasa.

Another is Kenji Mizoguchi's storytelling. Ugetsu, taken from an 18th century collection of short stories, is meant to describe the overall effects of war on the common person. As with many of his scores of earlier films, he uses the plight of common women to illustrate it. In this essay, critic Philip Lopate points out something that alters my previous opinion. While I had suggested that Ugetsu is really a cautionary tale, Lopate suggests that it is, rather, a realistic look at the effects of war. It is not meant to moralize, but rather to simply focus one's gaze upon the way humans behave. In Mizoguchi's visions, men often seek aggressive change, causing pain and sorrow, even if unintentionally, to themselves and those whom they truly love.

I guess it's this last idea that makes Ugetsu both a uniquely Japanese film and one that connects with any group: it's a beautifully artistic look at a rather sorrowful truth about humanness. It's certainly not an overwhelmingly cheery message, but there is some hope for contentedness, if not joy.

Here's the final scene, in which Genjuro recalls his loving wife, while her benvolent spirit comforts him with the wisdom of acceptance:

That's a wrap. 39 down, 66 to go.

Coming Soon: Tokyo Story (1953)

The final of the Japanese ichi-ni-san panchi (1-2-3 punch, English speakers). I've this sad little number about geriatrics before, and am not overly relishing a second viewing. Maybe an older, wiser me will appreciate it more. Or I'll just get tired of looking at mama- and papa-sans.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.