Kenji Mizoguchi’s art-house staple Ugetsu (1953) is the film after Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) that most introduced western audiences to Japanese cinema. It’s easy to see why, since this relatively simple film presents a wholly accessible story that is, nonetheless, unlike just about anything coming out of the West at the time. On its most basic level, Ugetsu is a ghost story—actually a two-ghost story—but done in a manner that has little to do with Hollywood chillers. In fact, the only thing remotely like it in Hollywood fare is the Val Lewton-produced Curse of the Cat People (1944), and that’s not unreasonable, because the Lewton films almost certainly influenced the lake sequence in Ugetsu.
The film follows the fortunes of two brothers—the farmer/potter Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) and his somewhat goofy helper Tobei (Sakae Ozawa)—and their much put-upon wives—Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Ohama (Mitsuto Miko). The action takes place at a time of civil war, an event that the brothers seem to virtually ignore in favor of their own self-centered pursuits. Genjuro is obsessed (increasingly so) with making money by selling his pottery in the neighboring larger towns, while Tobei has outsized dreams of becoming a samurai. Their wives are rightly skeptical of both pursuits, which does nothing to prevent either man from doing exactly what he wants—actions that come home to roost on the wives.
Very subtle in its plotting, Ugetsu slips into the realm of ghost story almost without the viewer realizing it. Genjuro—immediately following a fantasy (heralded by music that becomes important) in which he imagines Miyagi choosing a piece of expensive fabric he’s considering buying her—is drawn to a strange noble woman, Lady Wasaka (Machiko Kyo), who entices him to her ancestral home and proceeds to seduce him. The strangeness of the film lies in the fact that we realize that the woman is a ghost and that her whole world is held together by illusion—yet we are not actually told this until Genjuro himself discovers it. Somehow—and I’m not sure how, except that nothing seems quite real—we just know it.
At the same time, Tobei—almost inadvertently—achieves his aim of becoming a samurai, not completely realizing that he’s actually the butt of a joke by the samurai lord who bestows the honor on him. However, his glory is short-lived when he finds that his deserted wife has become a high-priced geisha.
Both men find their dreams dashed and return to their old lives in chastened form, but there’s been a heavy price, which Genjuro (remember the music that introduced his fantasy) doesn’t understand the full impact of till the very end.
This is a strange, mystical, almost wispy film with an undercurrent that’s hard to completely define. Its theme is clearly that the women in the story are more rational and in tune with reality than the men. Yet, what is the point? That’s difficult to say, because the women are the ones who suffer the most. The two men learn their lesson, but it’s more the women who pay the price for their eventual enlightenment. It is perhaps this ambiguity of theme that keeps Ugetsu fascinating all these years later.