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Ugetsu (1953)

by on 2011/02/26

“Success always comes with a price in suffering.”

* * * *

This 1950s, black and white film, entirely in Japanese with English subtitles, reduced me to the sniffling tears of a wee girl.

Based on a Japanese ghost story, Ugetsu is a part pastoral fable, part wartime drama, and part horror film, with several tragic love stories embroidered on top like so much silk thread on a fine kimono.

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, there’s a profound message in Ugetsu – a subtle, seamless message. It whispers at you as you watch the plot unfold. Then the message howls in your mind long after the film has ended.

In the Ōmi Province in Japan’s 16th century, we are introduced to two peasant families.

One family is that of Genjurō (Masayuki Mori), a farmer and potter. He lives with his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and young son Genichi. Their neighbours, the bumbling Tōbei (Eitarô Ozawa) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), his nagging wife, are fighting over Tōbei’s desire to become a samurai.

Genjurō has ambitions as well. He’s got a talent for ceramics. With the countryside in chaos, goods are scarce, and he’s fetching more silver than ever before with his wares.

Convinced the war will make him rich, he redoubles his efforts, driving his family to help him. Overtired, short-tempered and distracted, he snaps at his son and wife.

He tells Miyagi that one day his efforts will allow him to buy her fine things. She tells him she only wants peaceful times as a family.

When his tiny village is invaded by troops, Genjurō narrowly escapes with his wife and child into the forest.

Instead of feeling lucky he’s escaped enslavement or death at the hands of the soldiers, Genjurō is obsessed with his last batch of ceramics. Ignoring the cries of his wife and child, he races back to the village to find out if his pottery has survived.

Again Genjurō narrowly avoids death, and manages to load up the intact batch of pottery on a boat, dragging his wife, child, and Tōbei and Ohama with him.

On a fog-covered river at night, they encounter a boat floating aimlessly. As they draw nearer, they find a dying man, wounded by pirates. The man warns them to turn back to protect the women and Genichi.

Terrified, Genjurō and Tōbei turn back to shore. Still gripped by greed and ambition however, they decide to leave Miyagi and young Genichi behind, and continue on.

The men and Ohama make it successfully to the marketplace and the pottery sells quickly. Flush with cash, Tōbei wanders off to buy samurai armour. Ohama chases after him, and finds herself lost, only to be savaged by a pack of thugs. 

Genjurō is visited by a beautiful noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô) and her servant, offering to buy most of his remaining pottery and inviting him to deliver it personally to their home.

Glamourized, curious and (still) greedy, Genjurō complies and is rapidly seduced by the wealthy and lovely Lady Wakasa, forgetting all about his wife and child wandering unprotected in a war zone.

Tōbei follows a similar path. Happening upon a dead general, he steals the general’s severed head and presents it to the opposing army as proof of his military prowess. As his reward, he demands a samurai sword, armour and horse. He is honoured as a great commander and leads a group of victorious soldiers to a nearby brothel.

On a deserted roadside, Miyagi and Genichi are attacked by starving soldiers for a few rice cakes. Tōbei discovers his wife, disgraced and suicidal, in the brothel. Abandoned and alone, Miyagi dies.

Blissfully unaware, still in Lady Wakasa’s home, Genjurō is approached by a priest. Covering Genjurō’s body in Buddhist blessings, the priest warns that Lady Wakasa is a ghost.

The priest’s spiritual protection reveals that Lady Wakasa’s isn’t a flesh-and-blood woman. She is a ghost of young woman who died without knowing love. Her opulent home is, in reality, a pile of rubble.

Genjurō wanders away, tattered, penniless and alone.

I don’t think I can possibly describe how affecting Ugetsu is.

Be happy with what you have. Don’t let ambition and greed consume you. None of these trite summaries do sufficient justice to the moral of Ugetsu.

There’s a lot of talk about “establishing priorities” in every crummy lifestyle magazine you pick up. Putrid lip-service is paid to ‘family first’ in business meetings.

It isn’t just the ghosts that scare you in Ugetsu.

* * * *

94 minutes


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