Ugetsu Monogatari is the rare treat for the cinema enthusiasts around the World. It’s considered as the finest work of genius- an unusual blend, greeted as one of the most mesmerising films ever made, honing western audiences’ appetite for eastern exoticism. I find awe-struck in its entire spectacle and incarceration, spell the smirk the way one view the world. Abracadabra and hocus-pocus on face and what we see in our mind’s eye of the mystical unknown around us and the ventures we are filled in.
Made in 1953, and the year is considered as one of the fruitful years in the cinematic history with Ingmar Bergman’s film Sawdust and Tinsel; Fellini’s I Vitelloni; Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story; Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen; Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear; Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell, Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and besides Hollywood films like Roman Holiday, From Here to Eternity, House of Wax, I confess, were artistically well received and stunningly successful.
Director Kenji Mizoguchi is truly a chef-d’oeuvre. On its introduction in the West, Ugetsu Monogatari received universal acclaim and even won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The movie is based on Ueda Akinari’s book of the same name. Considered as the most celebrated films and critically observed as a masterwork of Japanese cinema and definitive piece of Japan’s glory age of films. Kenji Mizoguchi is credit for popularising Japanese cinema to the global audience along with Kurosawa, Ozu and Shindo to name the few. Sadly Mizoguchi’s premature death of leukaemia at the age of 58, three years after the movie’s release. This is been part of a series of outstanding late works of the old master.
Ugetsu is an enchantingly beautiful meditation on war, greed, and sexual desire, and a seamless blend of fantasy and realism, set in the period drama of 16th century Japan. The theme sets the idyllic-looking countryside of Japan of that era, among inhabitants of the peaceful peasant villages that line the shores of Lake Biwa in Omi Province. The civil war threatens to sweep across the region and transform the lives of its people for the worse, thus introducing the two potter brothers. Genjiro (Masayuki Mori) lives with his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and young son with hope of bettering their lives and selling wares in nearby town, and similarly his brother Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) boasts of buying a suit of armour and becoming a samurai. Both these men together supplement their meagre income by making a clay pots. Their wives counsel them to be obliged for what they have instead of wasting their time on such dreams. The film acquaint with an essential theme of Japanese movies as the story symbolise the resigned acceptance of the way things are rather than an assertion on change and resistance by the central characters
The film’s recites on the humble note, as Genjiro on his way to sell his wares in the town clasps the attention of the mysterious Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo). Soon she proves herself to be an evil spirit and Genjiro slowly loses himself in her clutches. His bro’Tobei, on the other hand, achieves his goal of becoming warrior through deceit. The time pushes both the brothers forget their faithful wives who are embarked into despair by the troubles of war. Though Genjiro gets caught in a dream world in the mansion of Lady Wakasa, his wife Miyagi fights with her little child for daily survival. On the other side, Tobei’s wife is raped by a horde of looting soldiers and in forlorn turn into a whore in a brothel, thus both men’s wives pay the price for their husbands’ ambition.
While the focus of the narrative is firmly on the misadventures of the two male protagonists- Mizoguchi’s disquiets are with the suffering women characters who eventually become the main victims in their husband’s well-meaning delusions. Even the ghostly Lady Wakasa has returned from the haunted realms only with the honest aim of finding the love she never experienced in life, and is reasonably annoyed when it transpires that Genjiro is already married, refusing to let him go back to his old life and therefore compelling the Buddhist equivalent of an exorcism and sutras are painted on Genjiro’s body by a passing priest who sniffs out the taint of his involvement with restless spirits and sets out to help him sort himself out.
There’s a tragic, fatalistic wind to the fates of Miyagi and Ohama, considering the pitiful of harsh rewards of their husbands desertion, though in the start, they pledge better lives to their family. The director covenants the layer of women persuading with venerable restraint, standing back and stoically letting the tales unfold themselves in a mere handful of sequence by way of the compelling and dignified performances essayed by the film’s two fine lead actresses, and then let loose an unpredictable emotional twist, that only complexes the tragedy of it all, in the final notes. It might thrive honest, and understood that the mystical cog are rather clichéd and foreseeable. The choreography underlines striking synthesis of metaphorical use of the material that hang us in the subtle treatment as restless ghosts and spirits, and the Gothic themes remain fresh in viewers mind even after six decades of the film. An unrelenting and fascinating imagery through the gorgeous stylisation is extraordinary work of art.
By all means, the film is pictorial and technical marvel, from its opening shot, the camera is constantly moving. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa recalled his conversation with Mizoguchi in the making of the film should unfold into a medieval Japanese scroll painting scene after scene. Miyagawa appraised that maximum shots of the film were tracking volleys. The camera was never still during the scenes in Lady Wakasa’s home, that’s been demonstrated after two historic Imperial villas. Occasionally the movement in those scenes are just traceable and perspective fold, through unsettling and constant motion about the place and its inhabitants.
The illustrious Lake Biwa scene is unadulterated visual rhyme, the boats stirring in and out of the mist. Then the assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka remembered the filming of the scene as torture. It was shot in a studio tank, in freezing-cold February, with Tanaka and another assistant in the tank hidden behind the boats, moving them. In those days before wetsuits, they only had hip boots to protect them, but the smoke that was creating the misty look wasn’t cooperating, and the implacable perfectionist Mizoguchi kept insisting on take after take, saying “the smoke is wrong.”
The film also has an exceptional closing sequence, exploiting Mizoguchi’s love for long takes, as Genjiro returns home, the wisdom he has attained allows him even to accept the great loss he discovers in his hut, and the presence of a love, so obstinate that it may not be taken away and by far, the music is another phenomenon of films lyrical undertones, scored by Fumio Hayasaka. Eventually it is a striking image of blatant human drama, that evokes fresh over and again, and this has to be one of the captivating experiences in the cinematic antiquity