Society & Lifestyle
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|by P. G. R. Nair|
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi/ Japan/Japanese/96mts
Two brothers, one consumed by greed, the other by envy. In a time when the land is savaged by marauding armies, they risk their families and their lives to pursue their obsessions. The heroes are rough-hewn and consumed by ambition, but the film style is elegant and mysterious, and somehow we know before we are told that this is a ghost story.
16th century Japan, the Civil War. While gangs of warriors clash and raid villages across the country, potter Genjuro (Masayuki Mori, When A Woman Ascends the Stairs, The Bad Sleep Well) works hard, hoping to get rich. His neighbor, apparently his brother, Tobei, dreams of becoming a respected samurai, but does not have enough to buy a proper uniform.
Genjuro returns with treasure: gold coins, which he insists his wife weigh in her hand. He makes her a gift of a beautiful fabric, bought in the city, but doesn't understand when she says that the cloth means less than his love for her. All he can talk about is making more pots and more money. Blinded by the gold, he returns to his work with frenzy.
The famous lake scene is the most beautiful in the film. Shot partly on a tank with studio backdrops, it creates a world of fog and mist, out of which emerges a lone boatman who warns them of pirates. Genjuro returns to leave his wife and child on the shore, and continues with Tobei and Ohama. In the city, his work sells quickly, and he is invited to the castle of a beautiful noblewoman named Lady Wakasa, who admires his craftsmanship. She's played by Machiko Kyo, one of the greatest stars of the period, who was also the woman in "Rashomon."
Tobei wanders off from his wife and his brother. Time passes. He clumsily kills a samurai and steals the head of a foe that the samurai had killed. Presenting this trophy to the samurai lord, he is praised and given a horse, a house and men to follow him. Filled with pride, he brings his men for the night to a geisha house, only to find that his wife, raped by soldiers after he abandoned her, has become a geisha.
At the castle, she drifts from behind screens and curtains and, regarding his simple pots, asks him, "How is such beauty created?" She praises and seduces him, and the critic Pauline Kael remembers she gasped with delight when he cried, "I never dreamed such pleasures existed!" Perhaps Genjuro should have taken warning when he heard the voice of the lady's dead father echoing through the room, and when her lady-in-waiting advised him, "Don't bury your talents in a small village! You must marry her!"
There is a crucial sequence when Genjuro goes back into the city, and on his return to the lakeside castle, is halted by a priest, who calls after him: "I see death in your face! Have you encountered a ghost?" He warns Genjuro against being "beguiled by a forbidden form of love."
Lady Wakasa is of course a ghost (we never doubted it), and there is a haunting scene when Genjuro sees the castle as it really is, a burned ruin. There is a second ghost in the movie who we do not suspect, and the revelation in that case creates a touching emotional release. It comes toward the end, after both men have returned chastened to their village, and are forgiven by their wives for the male weakness of blinding ambition.
In a career that started in 1923, Mizoguchi ended with a series of masterpieces, including "Life of Oharu" (1952), "Sansho the Bailiff" (1954) and "Street of Shame" (1955), which in its consideration of geishas perhaps draws on the life of his sister. To enter his world, like entering Ozu's, is to find a film language that seems to create the mood it considers; the story and its style of telling are of one piece.
The characters in "Ugetsu" are down to earth, and in the case of Tobei, even comic, but the story feels ancient, and indeed draws on the ghost legends of Japanese theater. Unlike ghost stories in the West, Mizoguchi's film does not try to startle or shock; the discovery of the second ghost comes for us as a moment of quiet revelation, and we understand the gentle, forgiving spirit that inspired it.
The period detail is accurate and rich. The city marketplace, the headquarters of the samurai, Tobei's visit to a shop to buy armor and a spear, Genjuro's haste when he asks another merchant to watch his prized pots (for he must hurry after Lady Wakasa) – all of these create a feudal world in which life is hard and escape comes through the silly dreams of men. Women are more cautious, and there is a blunt realism in the sequence where Miyagi, left behind, tries to protect and feed their son as armies’ loot and rape the countryside. At the end of "Ugetsu," aware we have seen a fable, we also feel curiously as if we have witnessed true lives and fates.
A series of "Hundred Favorite Films Forever"
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