An Appreciation – Ugetsu
Even worse is how the dynamic between Tobei and Ohama plays out. Genjuro maybe blinded by his ambition to help his family, but Tobei makes it clear what he wants. He is always looking for an opportunity to leave the group and join an army, even begging on his knees to do so. When he finally has the opportunity (after buying armor and weaponry using the pottery money), he dives in head first, completely abandoning Genjuro and Ohama. In these sequences, Tobei is portrayed as a sneak. He gains notoriety by clumsily killing an enemy from behind, and claiming the head of a famous general as his own personal victory. Of course, he didn’t actually cut it off himself, but he isn’t afraid to take the credit for it.
Through all this, we notice a mystical undercurrent cutting beneath the story. Hints are placed here and there. The soundtrack has a quiet, rhythmic beat, and often we hear chimes or bells indicating there is more going on than what we’re seeing. But it isn’t until Genjuro meets Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo) that we realize this is truly a ghost story. But it isn’t in the horror vein; it isn’t meant to frighten. It is more of a fantasy. Lady Wakasa seems wealthy, living in a large mansion with a number of servants, yet we know immediately that she is a spirit. A lot of this comes from her make up and wardrobe. Featuring high eyebrows painted on her forehead and long flowing costumes (like a Noh performer), Lady Wakasa’s very presence is otherworldly. She invites Genjuro to her home under the pretense of purchasing his goods, but in reality to seduce him. Yet again Mizoguchi subverts our expectations with his approach. Lady Wakasa’s seduction is not sexual but mysterious. Genjuro is drawn to her out of curiosity instead of physicality, through spiritual connection instead of bodily intimacy.
Mizoguchi’s technical efficiency amplifies these fantastical sequences. The way the frame is composed – often setting a wider angle with few close-ups – places the actors as pieces of the environment. I’m not an expert on Japanese history and culture, but the period detail feels authentic. Along with his cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, Mizoguchi captured all this using graceful camera movement. Where Yasujiro Ozu mounted his cameras to the ground and almost never moved it, Mizoguchi’s camera rarely ever held still. In the early scene where villagers escape a raid by running into the forest, the camera is lifted above the trees and moves along with them. When Lady Wakasa seduces Genjuro into marrying her, the frame moves from the two of them in a spring bath down to the ground, and into a dissolve that finds them in a new setting: a picnic by the river. This draws comparisons to Max Ophuls and the camerawork in his films, most notably The Earrings of Madame de… (1953). I’ve read that in Ugetsu, nearly three quarters of filming was done with the camera placed on a crane. The effect is poignant. The cinematography doesn’t intrude into the story but tracks it like an omniscient presence, as though it (and the audience) is a ghost as well.
How does the ghost of Lady Wakasa relate to the plight of Genjuro and Tobei? In the most obvious way, both Genjuro and Tobei are chasing fantasies, and Lady Wakasa represents the most drastic side of their pursuits. Genjuro could have easily fallen into this life (he mentions how he never knew such pleasures could exist), and Tobei was comfortable with being the famous war hero he was perceived to be. But the things they treasured the most were also the things they did not pay attention to. Because of their careless acts, both Miyagi and Ohama fell into deeper and darker places. When Tobei runs into Ohama, now working at a brothel, he is leveled with both shock and enormous guilt. The scene extends agonizingly on purpose, with Ohama’s jeers no longer containing a glint of humor, it’s now become deadly serious.
Even more tragic is Genjuro’s attempts to reunite with Miyagi. Is Lady Wakasa really an evil character? I see her more as a sad one. Where she is haunting Genjuro, she is being haunted by the ghost of her father. She believes that being with another will rid her of her torment. When Genjuro tries to break their marriage and escape during the exorcism scene, I felt a strange compassion for her sorrow. He breaks a vow he foolishly made to return to the woman he foolishly abandoned to begin with. Watch the scene where he returns home, how the camera pans from an empty house to suddenly having Miyagi inside cooking dinner with their son sound asleep. The fate of Miyagi is clued in at this moment, but for Genjuro, he becomes aware of what his actions have caused, and what he lost because of it. He let his greed and lust overwhelm him, and though he may have learned from it, the repercussions are permanent.
What are we to take away from Ugetsu? Many characters come full circle, back to the way of life they started with. Are we to believe the film argues that people should be happy with where they are, and that to desire more can only lead to heartbreak? The answer lies in a balance between the two sides. Of course people want to succeed and climb the ladder to a more comfortable life. What’s important is staying true to what one is. To know what really matters and not lose sight of that regardless of how much is gained in the process, that is what we are to take away. It’s a simple notion, but real and vital. To lose that is to lose a part of one’s soul.