(Warning: plot details and narrative twists discussed in explicit detail)
Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moon and Rain 1953) based on a collection of Ueda Akinari short stories of the same title (in particular "The House in the Thicket" and "The Lust of the White Serpent")--plus a bit of short fiction by Guy de Maupassant ("Decore!" or "How He Got the Legion of Honor")--is often considered the director's finest work, the supreme achievement of not just Japanese but world cinema.
Two men--the potter Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) and the farmer Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa)--trek to a nearby town to sell the former's ceramicware accompanied by their wives: gentle Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) who carries on her back Genjuro's son Genichi (Ikio Sawamura), and sharptongued Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) who berates Tobei for wanting to become a samurai. Problem is they journey under the shadow of civil war; Shibata Katsuie's army sweeps the land, and Genjuro hopes to avoid the fighting by crossing Lake Biwa on a small boat.
On the lake we find ourselves gazing at the setting--Mizoguchi shot the scene in a giant water tank--long before we ever see the boat. The thick shallow waves (more undulations than proper ripples) the surrounding fog banks the solemn singing (by Ohama who also paddles) the monotonous drumbeat set to the pace of a funeral march, all so blatant they're unnerving--nothing looks or sounds natural hence nothing feels as if it belongs to our world. When the boat finally pokes out of the fog bobbing its way towards us the vapors release their grip reluctantly, moist fingers clinging to low hull.
Suddenly Ohama stops singing; another boat fades into view, a man lying along its length. "A ghost!" someone exclaims which the man denies (not that we believe him; he looks more than half dead). He warns of pirates up ahead of cargo stolen men killed. As for the women--the women--
The men decide for safety's sake (the irony of that sentiment!) to leave their wives behind; Ohama insists on coming with her husband ("I can take care of him!" she declares). The men sell their pottery and make a killing; they split the profits go their own way and--
Here's the irritating kernel of a question at the heart of this near-perfect masterwork: what does Tobei's story have to do with the rest of the film? True it's partly a variation on Genjuro's (foolhardy overreacher pursues dream abandons wife along the way) but the tone and spirit of the narratives are so vastly different you wonder if the split personality was intentional, with Tobei and Ohama cast in a melodrama (in the manner of Mizoguchi's previous hit The Life of Oharu), Genjuro and Miyagi in something else.
Harsh high-contrast lighting mournful chant maddeningly deliberate drumming; even Mizoguchi's trademark tracking shots (executed with balletic grace by the legendary Kazuo Miyagawa) serve a different purpose here as Ohama is chased by soldiers and dragged into an abandoned house--less an expression of visual flow than an implacable witness following the action to its inevitable conclusion.
Tobei is eventually reunited with his wife--not the ending Mizoguchi wanted (Tobei was to continue to pose as celebrated but fake hero while his wife continued her more immersive role as prostitute) but still workable and in some ways more convincing (Could he have gone on posing as a samurai with a wife trapped in scandalous circumstances--possibly willing to tell stories about him?). As for improbably happy ending--I'm thinking the strange 21st chapter of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and the equally unlikely finale that concludes Journey to Italy--easy cynicism can be a dramatic trap can blind you to the complexities of human nature. And hope is arguably crueler than despair--with the latter you've hit bottom know your place in the world; with the former you're suspended in uncertainty you've been granted enough strength to continue suffering and not much else.
Pickled plum, that's what I thought of Tobei's story: tart fruit fermented in salt and shochu providing a sour palate-cleansing contrast to the fatty feast to come. A sprinkle of black comedy a generous helping of irony capped with a let's-pretend conclusion not too different from the ending in The Last Laugh--perhaps the tonal split is appropriate after all.
Comes the main meal: a mysterious patron named Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo) expresses interest in Genjuro's pottery invites him to her mansion--we later learn that her family was wiped out in the war, the only survivors being the Lady and her nurse.
Our first sight of the mansion is a broken-down gate swinging forlornly. The potter is led past an overgrown lawn up silent doors through an unkempt courtyard. Where Ohama's rape played to chant and slow beat Genjuro's arrival is announced by fluttering flute and a rhythm not unlike that of a palpitating heart (Genjuro's?). He looks back and in the sequence's first-ever reverse shot suddenly it's a magical evening and servants light candles in every room (Servants? But weren't there only two survivors?).
The transition is so smooth yet swift we're carried along before we ask questions--or we intend to ask questions but the beauty of the sequence squelches all stray thoughts (Mizoguchi like Lady Wakasa won't take 'No!' for an answer). The director's relentless long takes now glide with serene otherworldly confidence unifying time and space fantasy and reality in a single sinuous motion.
And here lies the horror: at some level Genjuro knows. The rotting gate, the overgrown yard, the empty courtyard plunged into evening are warning enough--he's aware it's all illusion and plays along. When he cries out that he never knew such pleasures exist implicit in his statement is the idea that such pleasures shouldn't exist, that there's something unnatural in his experiencing them; when Wakasa openly challenges him to call her a demon (or spirit or ghost depending on the translation) Genjuro dismisses the challenge, just as openly admitting that he doesn't care. He is a willing collaborator in his own seduction, in the willful neglect of wife and child of his wife's ultimately hard fate (speared by hungry samurai while fighting over her son's food*).
*(Many have remarked on the pathos of Miyagi's death--the long shot from on high gazing down as she shuffles her last few steps, the samurai in the far background quarreling over the food they had just killed her for. What few if any have noted is that much of the misery of the scene comes from the contrast between the child's nonstop wailing as he lies on the ground still strapped to his mother's stiffening body and the men arguing in the distance. No visible blood, yet Mizoguchi can be quite the sadist.)
So when Genjuro is brought to his senses and painted with Buddhist prayers it's with relief and equally palpable grief that he draws a sword and sends the spirits running. He in effect has taken a sword to his dream is slashing it to shreds, opting for a truth that doesn't set you free so much as send you crashing.
And as in some of Mizoguchi's best films a woman stops the downward spiral blesses Genjuro with closure. He staggers into his old hut--camera following, this time with a realist relentlessness**--beyond the cold hearth to the other end of the shack, turns back and (emblematic moment!) finds he has stumbled past what he had been looking for, what he needed all along: a crackling fire a sleeping child a waiting loving wife.
**(In a film full of breathtaking shots each with its own circle of fans this may be my favorite--technically impressive, carefully timed to both summarize Genjuro's narrative and bring it to dramatic peak, a perfect fusion of the film's two storytelling modes: quotidian melodrama and stylized supernatural)
Miyagi like Wakasa before her is an illusion of course but one that leaves something substantial behind--a child--for Genjuro to raise as both father and mother; we watch the potter continue living his life in the house from where he started, in a state of equilibrium bitterly achieved. Genichi takes the meal handed to him by his father walks over to his mother's grave (Mizoguchi's camera as always following) and offers it to her; the camera rises to take in the surrounding landscape the rest of humanity, its movement rhyming with the swell of emotion in our hearts. Not perhaps the happiest of endings, but as capstone to arguably one of the greatest films--easily one of the most gorgeous--lovely enough.
First published in Businessworld 11.3.17