An Appreciation – Ugetsu
We’ve all wanted more for ourselves. We grew up with ambitions beyond our grasp, waiting for us to one day reach out and take them. While some achieved their dreams, an equal amount fell well short. But the desire for something more has always remained no matter how old we become. There were plenty of times where I thought to myself: what if I did something different? How did my life’s path take me to this place, and how much did my own choices lead me here? And even more importantly, what remaining power do I have to enhance or even change it? That question is at the heart of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953). The characters inhabit a cruel and desperate world, and their obsessions for success take them on a journey between the real world and the realm of the fantastic. It’s a delicate and lyrical story, but powerfully moving.
Mizoguchi (with screenwriter Yoshitaka Yoda) places the setting in sixteenth century Japan, a time where civil wars ravaged the countryside. This is an important factor for the main characters. Soldiers, thieves, and bandits were prevalent, but this isn’t about them. This is about the villagers, the people of low means who were so often victims of the wars. These people worked endlessly just to make ends meet day by day. Notice their postures: some appear hunched over, as though the weight of poverty rests heavily on their shoulders. It’s no wonder our protagonists become so focused on monetary success. When each day is a struggle to provide food for their family, a little taste of victory can fuel a person for more. Anyone can understand this, as we all strive for a better life. The film pulls us into the narrative using an empathetic theme.
But when does ambition become mania? The line between desire and greed is a thin one, and for a person who has to fight everyday to live, the temptation for wealth can cloud their judgment. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) are two men who feed off this burning eagerness for fame and fortune, yet their greediness is the sole cause of their personal tragedies. Genjuro is a potter, who sells his wares in hopes of a profit. Tobei is his next-door neighbor, a farmer who dreams of becoming a famous samurai. The two are similar with their goals, but vastly different in their character traits. Genjuro seems levelheaded, focused on the job at hand. Tobei is more comedic, with exaggerated, clown-like gestures. He attaches himself to Genjuro’s hip, traveling to the nearby towns in hopes of joining the ranks of the surrounding armies.
Genjuro and Tobei are the main characters, but the complexities of their stories are anchored by their wives. Genjuro is married to Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), who is loyal and compassionate, but worried about the dangers of his travels and the safety of their young son. In contrast, Tobei’s wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) is outspoken, brash, and routinely ridicules him for his silly ideas of being a samurai. Each is important in highlighting what it means for a person to be “successful.” Does having money truly make things easier? Can a person buy happiness? This isn’t as easy a question as one may assume. Sure, being rich doesn’t necessarily mean one will have a good life, but not worrying about where your next meal will come from is a burden few would ever want to take. After selling his pottery in town, Genjuro buys a new kimono for Miyagi, and prides himself for it. Miyagi, in turn, mentions her happiness is not in the clothing but in the person who bought it.
Miyagi and Ohama are critical characters. Genjuro and Tobei’s greed has a direct correlation with where the two end up, amplifying what Mizoguchi aims for. The director has often explored the mistreatment of women in his work. The most staggering example came in The Life of Oharu (1952), which he made immediately prior to Ugetsu. In Oharu, he depicted a woman (also played by Kinuyo Tanaka) who was repeatedly heartbroken and humiliated throughout her life. The rawness of her pain was so severe, at times it feels too unbearable to watch. This film visits the same areas, but takes a more poetic, spiritual approach. Suffering is balanced between the physical and emotional senses. After Genjuro’s pottery survives in a kiln following an army attack, the four decide to travel together via boat across a lake to an adjacent town. In the most haunting and memorable scene – fog filled and heavy with a ghostly atmosphere – they run across a mysterious boat carrying a dying man. The man warns them (specifically the women and child) of violent pirates.
This is a major junction point in the plot. Instead of heeding the man’s advice, both Genjuro and Tobei push forward, thinking about selling their wares instead of their own safety (as well as the safety of their companions). They’re so negligible, that Genjuro decides to take Miyagi and their son back to drop them off as he, Tobei, and Ohama carry on. Notice the scene where Genjuro waves goodbye to his family, the way the camera cuts back and forth between Genjuro disappearing across the lake and Miyagi chasing after him on the shore. Words are spoken about meeting each other again, but underneath is a layer of hopelessness. Neither of them will admit it, but in the back of their minds is the aching feeling this is the last time they’ll be together as a family.