28 January 2006

100 films: Ugetsu monogatari

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starring: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyô, Kinuyo Tanaka, and Eitarô Ozawa
written by: Yoshikata Yoda, adaptation by Matsutarô Kawaguchi of the stories by Akinari Ueda
directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
NR, 94 min, 1953, Japan

Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) and his brother To^bei (Eitarô Ozawa), two lowly potters with their sights set on wealth, risk certain death at the hands of a marauding army to get their largest batch of wares yet to market. Genjurô wishes to be able to provide better for his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and his child, but To^bei has ambitions of becoming a samurai, despite his utter lack of experience. At the marketplace, To^bei, against his wife's pleading, purchases a spear and some armor and sets off to become a great fighter. With Miyagi at home with their son, Genjurô is seduced by Lady Wakasa, a wealthy woman who appreciates his expert craftsmanship. She offers to marry him, and Genjurô, drawn to a world of comfort, accepts.[1]

As one might expect from a man who watched as his older sister was sold as a geisha and his father abused his mother, director Kenji Mizoguchi's films quite often deal with the treatment of women in Japanese culture. Long viewed as second-class citizens, Mizoguchi shone a light on their treatment and exploitation by a society unwilling to change[2]. In Ugetsu monogatari he explores that theme by presenting two husbands who act against their wives wishes for what they perceive to be the greater good. Both of their initial decisions are made with the best of intentions. Genjurô risks his life to salvage his pottery and get it to the market so that he can purchase a few luxuries for his wife. As the film opens he is returning from a successful trip and it's clear from the joy he gets by watching Miyagi try on her new kimono that to be able to adequately provide for his family is a great honor. To him the money isn't nearly as important as the happiness it brings, so he works extra hard on the next batch of pottery with the goal of being able to do more for his family. The army ruins those plans, but he is persistent to the point of blindness that he must not let this opportunity go to waste. Miyagi does what she can to convince him that their safety should take priority, but he refuses to listen. For Genjurô, as the head of the family, knows best. His decisions must not be questioned. To^bei, on the other hand, does not have Genjurô's force of will or his talents, but he has a determination to be a samurai nonetheless. His wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) considers this to be the height of foolishness, and she's right, but To^bei is too much like his brother in this regard. His desire to give his wife a reason to be proud of him may be noble, but its application is foolish.

The real tragedy of Ugetsu monogatari is that these two men, despite their best intentions, destroy the lives of the women they love in the pursuit of greatness. Miyagi is murdered by a band of thieves while Genjurô is off selling his wares and Ohama is raped by soldiers during To^bei's pursuit of the samurai glory and becomes a prostitute who is kept alive simply by the desire to show To^bei the effect of his foolishness, so that he may see what has become of his wife. When they do reunite, after To^bei has improbably achieved his goal[3], he is understandably devastated. For what good are your accomplishments if you cannot share them with the woman you love?

Meanwhile, Genjurô is lured to the house of Lady Wakasa, who considers his pottery to be the work of a master. Such flattery and beauty is often enough to seduce most men, and Genjurô is no exception, forgetting for a time that he has a wife and child waiting for him. But in his pursuit of wealth and comfort, Genjurô fails to realize that Lady Wakasa is nothing more than a ghost, an evil temptress[4] looking for a love she was denied in her lifetime. It is in these days he spends with her that Miyagi is murdered and after realizing that Lady Wakasa is a ghost, he returns home and interacts with the ghost of Miyagi as well. While this does an effective job of reinforcing to Genjurô the error of his ways (as well as giving him a means by which he can apologize for his foolishness), it also serves to illustrate that the punishment for his greed is mental as well as physical. Not only has he lost the woman he loves and everything he truly cares about in the pursuit of temporary pleasure, but he appears to have gone a bit mad in the process.

[1] As you might imagine, that sort of thing isn't viewed as a classy thing to do to the mother of your child.

[2] To be fair, few oppressors see the need to change the status quo. It just doesn't seem to represent their best interests.

[3] He charged and killed a man who had just beheaded a famed general. Not exactly the samurai code of honor, but effective.

[4] Complete with two marks on her forehead that resemble horns. A manifestation of the devil.


johanna said...

i really liked this one, and could have written a much longer review of it (even though i still can't find a picture for it)

i thought there was so much distilled beauty that even when the sets were obvious, i didn't mind so much

but i also felt like the ending was more an implicit forgiveness rather than a chance to apologize; after all, he did remember where his home was, even if was too late (by most appraisals, anyway)

-- a possibly slanted female perspective

mattreed said...

This movie sounds interesting.

However, in every review you use the following pattern at least once:

"[general statement] and [the movie/the character/etc.] is no different."

This should be avoided.

lucas said...

yeah, i tend to repeat myself a lot. i try to catch them, but some get through.

this is actually better than the review makes it sound