When I think of Reggae music, I think of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, just those two, and in just that order. Of course, I realize that for a true fan of the music, such a limited view must seem annoyingly ignorant. No matter how important those figures are, all of Reggae music can’t come down to just two guys from The Wailers. Similarly, when I think of Japanese cinema, I think of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirô Ozu. Fortunately here I am better off, for now having seen Ugetsu, I can add Kenji Mizoguchi to the list.
Ugetsu, per the Wiki entry, is “a 1953 black-and-white Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi and based on stories in Ueda Akinari’s book of the same name. It is a ghost story and an example of the jidaigeki (period drama) genre. Set in Azuchi–Momoyama period Japan, it stars Masayuki Mori and Machiko Kyō.” I wouldn’t so much describe it as a ghost story as I would simply a story with ghosts in it. The ghosts are presented so matter-of-factly they imbue the film with a magical realist sensibility rather than a fantastical or supernatural one. Their presence is incidental rather than essential, and while I can’t go into detail without spoilers, it’s instructive to compare the Ugetsu ghosts to Captain Gregg, the ghost from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which I covered in my previous blog entry. When Lucy Muir arrives at Whitecliff, Gregg is haunting it in the traditional (European) sense of the word and wants nothing more from Lucy Muir than that she should go away. The motivations of the ghosts in Ugetsu are decidedly more familiar and, odd as the word choice might be in this context, decidedly more down to earth.
The stories in Ugetsu are overtly didactic, and if there is a sore point against the film with modern audiences, I would guess this to be it. Genjurō and Tōbei, the anti-heroes of the film, are ambitious. Genjurō dreams of hitting it big in the marketplace with his pottery, while Tōbei wants to be a Samurai. Reckless in their pursuit of these dreams, they take dangerous risks for which, unfortunately, their loved ones will pay the price. The moral of this story can be viewed in at least two ways. On one hand, understanding the value of people over fame and fortune is a universal truth fundamental to the basic dignity of all human beings. On the other, it’s not difficult to see how the story of two peasants punished for trying to raise their station serves the status quo, particularly when we realize that, unlike Tōbei, Genjurō is not foolish in his pursuits. He has genuine talent as a potter, and his wares sell quite well at the marketplace. He may be subject to other failings, but there’s nothing wrong with his art or his business acumen. Compounding matters is the presentation of Tōbei’s and Genjurō’s wives. Clearly, Miyagi and Ohama have wisdom their husbands lack. Nevertheless, they are shown as completely helpless and dependent throughout the film. “You must protect your women!” is retained as a theme despite the likelihood that had their husbands been present they outcome would probably not have changed. Farmers, after all, whether male or female, are at a distinct disadvantage against soldiers. This does not excuse them from abandoning their families in a time of danger, but it does make the theme that Genjurō and Tōbei should have just been happy with what they had and left well enough alone a little more suspect.
If that analysis turns anyone away from the film though, I am doing it an injustice (okay, so that’s not likely given the extent of my readership but, hey, it’s my blog, and I’ll say what I want!). In terms of simply watching an enjoyable film, Ugetsu is hypnotic and beautiful and more than the sum of its parts. Roger Ebert called it “one of the greatest of all films,” describing it as “elegant and mysterious.” It is elegant and mysterious. More than works I’ve seen by Ozu and Kurosawa, Ugetsu strikes me as a good gateway film for Golden Age Japanese cinema. Ultimately, the didacticism doesn’t matter. Dennis Washburn, in the Wiki entry for the book, argues that “through his highly literate style and developed narrative technique, Ueda avoids overly emphasizing the moral aspect, and the tales are first and foremost a literary exploration of human emotion.” Replace “highly literate style” and “developed narrative technique” with “highly visual style” and “developed cinematography technique” and the point applies equally well to the film. Highly recommended.