Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Production: Daiei studios; black and white, 35mm; running time: 96 minutes; length: 8622 feet. Released 1953. Filmed 26 January-13 March 1953.
Producer: Masaichi Nagata; screenplay: Matsutaro Kawaguchi, from Yoshikata Yoda's adaptation of two stories, "Asaji ga yado" ("The Inn at Asaji") and "Jasei-no in" ("Serpent of Desire"), from the collection of stories Ugetsu monogatari by Akinari Ueda (1768); photography: Kazuo Miyagawa; editor: Mitsuji Miyata; sound: Iwao Otani; production designer: Kisaku Ito; music: Fumio Hayasaka and Ichiro Saito.
Cast: Machiko Kyo (Wakasa); Kinuyo Tanaka (Miyagi); Mitsuki Mito (Ohama); Masayuki Mori (Genjuro); Sakae Ozawa (Tobei); Sugisaku Aoyama (Old priest); Kikue Nori (Ukon); Mitsusaburo Ramon (Commander of the clan NIWA); Ryosuke Kagawa (Village chief); Kichijiro Tsuchida (Silk merchant); Syozo Nanbu (Shinto priest); Ichiisaburo Sawamura (Genichi).
Awards: Venice Film Festival, Silver Prize Winner and Italian Critics Award, 1953; Edinburgh Film Festival, Gold Medal Winner, 1955.
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* * *
Ugetsu monogatari was not the first Kenji Mizoguchi film to be shown in the West, but it was the first to reveal him to the West as a major artist. Swiftly establishing itself (especially in France) on many critics' "Ten Best" lists, the film opened the way for the acclamation of the work of Mizoguchi's final period. For some, he became the supreme filmmaker, the cinematic Shakespeare, realizing to the fullest the potential of film as an art form. That was at the time when the "potential of film" was generally felt to have been identified and adequately expounded by André Bazin; and assessment which can still be accepted if we add the proviso that Bazin accounted for only one of film's many potentials.
However, the supremacy of his "late" period and the kind of achievement that it represents, has been increasingly challenged since the 1960s. Two factors help account for this: one is the discovery of Mizoguchi's earlier films, previously almost unknown; the other is the politicization of film criticism and the growth, within it, of an ideological awareness. In recent years, Noël Burch's To the Distant Observer, Joan Mellen's The Waves at Genji's Door, and Frieda Frieberg's useful pamphlet Women in Mizoguchi's Films—three books written from quite distinct critical positions, with quite distinct estimates of Mizoguchi's work—have agreed on one point, the application (in a derogatory sense) of the term "aestheticism" to Mizoguchi's late work. Films previously hailed as the greatest ever made—Ugetsu, Sansho dayu, The Life of Oharu—are suddenly perceived as evidence of Mizoguchi's withdrawal from the radicalism of his work in the 1930s and 1940s, and a retreat from a social/political viewpoint into the realm of aesthetic contemplation.
The relationship between aesthetics and politics is incredibly complex: the critical problems it generates have never been successfully resolved. It is true that Ugetsu monogatari is ideologically more conservative than, say, Sisters of Gion or My Love Has Been Burning. The crux lies in the treatment of women. From the radical feminist protest of his earlier films to the celebration of woman as self-sacrificer, redeemer, and mother in Ugetsu is certainly a large and disconcerting jump. (Mizoguchi's conversion to Buddhism in the early 1950s is doubtlessly a related factor.) Further, Ugetsu can be read as advocating the resignation to and the acceptance of one's lot. This withdrawal from the active struggle in favor of a spiritual transcendence makes the hardships of the material world not so much endurable as irrelevant. The film encourages such a reading, yet cannot be reduced to it.
Ugetsu contains within itself an answer to the charge of aestheticism. The story of Genjuro the potter can be taken as Mizoguchi's artistic testament. At the beginning of the film Genjuro is a materialistic artisan, mass-producing pots as a commodity. His encounter with the Lady Wakasa introduces him to the world of the aesthetic. She shows him fragile and exquisite vessels that she presents, and he accepts, as his creations, but that are totally unlike the crude, functional wares we have seen him almost brutally shape earlier. The complexity of response that this whole central segment evokes is sufficient in itself to call into question the reduction of the film to a single clear-cut statement. The Lady Wakasa is both evil spirit and a pathetic, victimized woman; the world of the aesthetic (which is also the world of the erotic) has a fascination and authentic beauty that make it far from easily dismissible. That alluring world, however, has three negative connotations. First, it is presented as a possible option only if one turns one's back on reality. It is a world of fantasy and illusion where the suffering of human beings in a material world of oppression, cruelty, greed, and human exploitation cannot be permitted to intrude. (One of the most expressive cuts in the history of the cinema is that from the exquisite scene of love-making on the cultivated lawn beside the lake to Miyagi, fearfully peering out from her hiding-place, a woman vulnerable to attack from all sides of a society created by men.) Second, Wakasa herself is not presented as an autonomous character, even in her appreciation of beauty. Everything she knows, her father had taught her. Her father (long since dead) appears in the film as a hideous, emaciated skull-like mask speaking in a disturbingly strange subterranean voice. The aesthetic, whatever else it may be, is clearly defined as a patriarchal imposition: "taste" is what women are taught by men. Finally, the father is linked to war, domnation, and imperialism. Wakasa's father had the misfortune to lose, and have his clan exterminated, but the film makes clear that he would have inflicted precisely the same fate on his enemies, had the outcome been reversed.
The overall effect of the film is to suggest, not that the aesthetic is invalid in itself, but that it cannot validly exist in this world. (The film's contemporary relevance is by no means compromised by its setting in the sixteenth century.) The pot Genjuro is making at the end of the film, under Miyagi's spiritual supervision, is significantly different from the two previous kinds of work: it is made with loving care, but also the product of experience; it is a work of art yet made to be used by Genjuro's peers rather than admired by a cultivated elite. The great beauty of the film is of an order altogether different from the aestheticism of the Wakasa world. Mizoguchi never aestheticizes pain and suffering (in the manner of, say, David Lean in Dr. Zhivago). The extraordinary sequence-shot showing the mortal wounding of Miyagi is a case in point: the aesthetic strategies (long take, distance, complex camera movement, depth of field showing simultaneous actions in foreground and background) serve to sustain the characteristic Mizoguchian tension between involvement and contemplation, but do not in any way mitigate the horror of the scene.
If on one level Ugetsu tends to reinforce traditional myths of woman, on another it remains true to the radical spirit of Mizoguchi's earlier Marxist-feminist principles. The actions of both Genjuro and Tobei are motivated by the values forced upon them by patriarchal capitalism. They both seek success (Genjuro through the acquisition of wealth, Tobei through the prestige of becoming a Samurai) in order to impress their wives, neither of whom shows the smallest interest in such ambitions. The film is a systematic critique of the kind of male egoism (expressing itself in greed and violence and the destruction of human relationships, always at the expense of women) that a patriarchal capitalist civilization promotes.