by Lisa Morton
Kenji Mizoguchi’s classic 1953 ghost movie UGETSU may not be the first major Asian horror film (China’s SONG AT MIDNIGHT – just to name one – beats it by almost twenty years), but it can probably lay a solid claim to being the most influential. It’s also an important milestone in Japanese cinema overall; it frequently appears on “greatest films ever made” lists, and cemented Mizoguchi’s reputation as one of the great artists of world cinema.
Now, half-a-century and hundreds of horror movies later…does it hold up?
Well, that’s both an admittedly ridiculous question and a telling one.
UGETSU is eerie, tragic, tense, romantic, drenched in sociopolitical commentary, a meditation on poverty and war, and exquisite from first frame to last. The irony, of course, is that many modern horror fans would probably find it unwatchable. It’s deliberately paced (the film takes about a half-an-hour to get to the first hints of supernatural doings), lacks a single optical effect (there isn’t even so much as a translucent spirit), is in black-and-white, and has only one scene of bloodshed (a beheading), which occurs offscreen. Add to that its very definite Asian sensibilities, and I doubt if anyone who thinks another SAW movie is a great idea is likely to sit through much of UGETSU.
And that’s really too bad, because they’re missing out on cinematic joys they’ll never find in a modern tortureporn excursion.
Based on several stories from Akinari Ueda’s 1776 collection UGETSU MONOGATORI (TALES OF MOONLIGHT AND RAIN), Mizoguchi’s film draws on centuries of Chinese and Japanese folklore, and provided a model for generations of filmmakers who followed. Ueda, who was also a physician and a scholar of literature, was probably familiar with Pu Songling’s STRANGE TALES FROM A CHINESE STUDIO (published about 1740), and he must also have known the great fairy tales of China, which included “Madam White Snake” (very likely an influence on Ueda’s story “The Serpent’s Lust”). Although Mizoguchi changed a number of key story elements in adapting Ueda’s stories, he kept tropes that will be instantly recognizable to fans of later Asian classics. A CHINESE GHOST STORY’s gorgeous seductress who woos men with music? It’s here. GREEN SNAKE’s pair of female spirits living in a house that’s really a ruin? Check. Even THE GRUDGE’s long-haired ghost who moves in that strange, jerky fashion has an early ancestor in Lady Wakasa, the most ominous of UGETSU’s ghosts.
What Mizoguchi crafted onto these classical elements, however, was his own social conscience, because in many ways UGETSU is first and foremost a film about the universal tragedy of war (Mizoguchi even gave this note to his screenwriter, Yoshikata Yoda: “The feeling of wartime must be apparent in the attitude of every character. The violence of war unleashed by those in power on a pretext of the national good must overwhelm the common people with suffering”). UGETSU begins with two couples, the potter Genjuro and his practical, sympathetic wife Miyagi, and the dreamer Tobei and his nagging spouse Ohama. Genjuro is preparing a new load of pottery to sell in the local town when the village is attacked. The quartet manages to save some of Genjuro’s wares from the pillaging troops, and they try to ferry them across a lake; however, halfway across the foggy, quiet expanse of water, they encounter a drifting boat with a dying man who warns them of pirates. Fearing for his wife’s safety, Genjuro insists on putting Miyagi and their young son Genichi ashore, promising to return to her in ten days.
Genjuro, Tobei and Ohama reach the town, and the pots sell well. Tobei uses his part of the proceeds to buy armor and weapons, believing that being a samurai will fulfill his dreams of wealth and glory. Genjuro, meanwhile, is invited to a nearby palace to sell goods to the refined and beautiful Lady Wakasa. The Lady seduces Genjuro with praise for his work and promises of wealth and love, and when she dances for him, the ghostly voice of her dead father seemingly approves of her match with Genjuro. Genjuro experiences ecstasy with the lady, forgetting about his wife and son…until he goes into town one day and encounters a monk, who tells him he’s been cursed. The monk paints Sanskrit characters on Genjuro and sends him back to the palace, where Lady Wakasa and her maid recoil in terror and reveal the truth to Genjuro: That the Lady died some years ago, but she passed away without ever knowing love, and her faithful maid brought her spirit back so she could experience the pleasures she never knew in life. Terrified, Genjuro flees, but passes out in the palace courtyard. When he awakens the next morning, he’s surrounded not by the stately mansion, but by burned-out, dilapidated ruins.
Tobei, meanwhile, believes his luck has changed when, one day on the edge of a battle, he stumbles on the beheaded corpse of a great general. Tobei finds a man carrying off the general’s head, and he kills the man and captures the ghoulish prize for himself. He takes the head to his own leader, and is rewarded with what he most desires: A position as a revered samurai, complete with horse, weapons, and vassals. When his men demand a rest at an inn and bordello, Tobei is horrified to discover Ohama, whom he abandoned, has been forced to turn to prostitution to survive.
Genjuro returns to his village and is overjoyed to find his wife apparently waiting for him in their house; she gives him sake, then mends his robe as he sleeps. However, when he awakens in the mornings, Genjuro is told that his wife was killed some time ago by soldiers; he’s even shown her grave as proof. After Tobei, done now with dreams of war, and Ohama return to the village, they all start their lives again, and even Miyagi is present as a voice at Genjuro’s side.
Mizoguchi’s visuals are justifiably famous (UGETSU includes one of cinema’s great transitions, when the camera pans away from a night-time rendezvous in a spring between Lady Wakasa and Genjuro, across wet stones that dissolve into raked sand, the pan ending by revealing that night has become day and the couple are now enjoying a garden picnic), but just as interesting to me is Mizoguchi’s use of women. His breakthrough feature, SISTERS OF THE GION (1936) is a sympathetic and heart-wrenching study of geishas, and the women of UGETSU are no less fascinating. Miyagi in particular (beautifully played by Kinuyo Tanaka) is the most common-sense character in the film; when she warns Genjuro to flee the approaching soldiers rather than worry about his pots, she becomes the film’s soul, effectively telling us that we can neither ignore the dangers of war nor realistically expect to profit from it in any way. Even the elegant but unnerving Lady Wakasa is ultimately pathetic, seeming to be more victim in a world of men than victimizer of men.
Sometimes Mizoguchi’s artistry with shots (he loves high contrast lighting, slow tracking shots, and subtle lighting changes during a single take) overshadow his equally expert use of sound. Indeed, some of UGETSU’s best chills derive from its superb soundtrack, which employ wailing flutes, bells, and shrill horns. Mizoguchi often limns scenes offscreen (the approaching army, the beheading) with sound effects, and relies on sound for the film’s creepiest scene, the one in which Lady Wakasa’s dead father sings mournfully through his empty samurai helmet.
Fortunately, UGETSU is available now in a beautiful DVD package from Criterion, complete with a restored high-definition transfer, interviews and documentaries, and a booklet that includes the three short stories that most inspired Mizoguchi (two by Ueda, and one by Guy de Maupassant, which provided the basis for the ambitious Tobei). Even if UGETSU doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, broaden your perspectives and give it a try. Just don’t be surprised if you end up thinking that the next modern gorefest you see looks curiously bloodless by comparison.
TRAILER AND INFORMATION ON THE DVD RELEASE: