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Ugetsu Monogatari

Director: Kenzi Mizoguchi
Writers: Matsutaro Kawaguchi, Yoshikata Yoda
Producer: Masaichi Nagata
Cast: Masayuki Mori, Saka Ozawa, Machiko Kyo
Year of release: 1953
Country: Japan
Reviewed from: UK festival screeing (Far Out 2005)

This is yet another variant on the Japanese kaidan staple of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy discovers girl was a ghost.

In this instance we have two couples, living in a village in the 16th century during a time of war. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori: Rashomon) is a farmer who has a sideline in pottery, living with his loving wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka, who was in a 1932 version of The Loyal 47 Ronin and played Princess Yamato in The Birth of Japan) and their young son. Their neighbours are Tobei (Saka Ozawa: Godzilla 1985, The H-Man, Gorath and the 1958 version of The Loyal 47 Ronin), who longs to become a samurai, and his nagging wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mita: Duel on Ganryu Island, Duel at Ichijoji Temple).

When Genjuro takes a cart of pots to a local town to sell, he makes a tidy profit and realises that he has found a way for his family to escape from poverty. With their neighbours' help, Genjuro and Miyagi fire up a big load of new pots, but have to flee the village when the soldiers come round looting and raping. Genjuro is terrified that the kiln fire will go out and ruin the pots in which he has invested so much time, effort and expense, but fortunately the work survives.

The five friends set off with the pots towards another nearby town, travelling across the lake by boat to avoid the soldiers, but they encounter a nearly-dead man in a drifting boat who has been attacked by pirates. They put Miyagi and the boy ashore to return to the village for relative safety, then continue.

In the town, the pots sell like hot cakes, but Tobei is distracted by some local samurai and determines to spend his cut of the money on some armour and a weapon so that he can join them. Searching for her husband, Ohama wanders out of the town and is raped by a soldier who throws her a few coins as payment.

Meanwhile, Tobei witnesses a famous general, close to death, asking his lieutenant to finish him off. This the soldier does, off-screen, removing the general's head, presumably to prevent identification or use of the head as a trophy. Tobei takes the opportunity to stab the weary soldier and take the head, which he presents to a rival warlord as proof that he has defeated the mighty warrior in question.

Back at the market, Genjuro meets Lady Wakasa (played by Lotus Blossom herself, Teahouse of the August Moon's Machiko Kyo) and her nurse, who praise his work and purchase several pieces to be delivered to a mansion outside the town. Well, fairly obviously the pasty-faced woman is a ghost and fairly swiftly she seduces Genjuro who wakes up to find that he is, apparently, married to her. And so life goes on for a while, with plenty of food, plenty of sex and plenty of serving maids in attendance. But when he goes back into town to buy the Lady a gift, he finds that local traders want nothing to do with anyone claiming to live at the mansion.

Genjuro meets a Shinto priest who can see that he has encountered supernatural goings-on and who writes various prayers on the potter's body to ward off spirits. When Lady Wakasa and her nurse see these they react in horror, especially when Genjuro admits that he has a wife and child at home. This leads to a scene of a mentally anguished, bare-chested Genjuro hacking his way through the mansion's walls ... and he is woken up the next morning by soldiers who accuse him of stealing the sword in his hand from a temple. Genjuro sees at this point that the mansion is actually just a few charred timbers and has been for many years.

Back with Tobei, we find that he is now a highly regarded samurai with a whole entourage, all based on this one supposed success that he had over a legendary general. His soldiers persuade him to let them rest at a large bordello where Tobei comes face to face with Ohama, now a very successful prostitute. There is a reconciliation of sorts as each recounts how they have risen/fallen since they last saw each other.

Genjuro arrives back at his village to find Miyagi cooking a meal for him. However, we know that she is also a ghost because (a) there is a neat camera trick where the camera pans away from an empty fireplace then back to find it aflame and tended by Miyagi, and (b) we previously saw her stabbed by some stragglers from the army who stole the food she was carrying.

The next morning, Genjuro is awoken by the village elder who explains that Miyagi is dead and he has been caring for Genjuro's son since then. Genjuro sees that his house, which last night seemed so welcoming, is in fact empty and cobwebbed. The film finishes with Genjuro, Tobei and Ohama back in the pottery business, while a voice-over from Miyagi explains that she will watch over her husband and son from beyond.

A lovely film this, which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival (there's a caption to this effect on the front of the subtitled print that I saw). But I'm damned if I can discern the moral story. If anything, the Tobei/Ohama subplot seems to have a stronger rationale; he is driven by an unrealistic ambition, while his wife's criticisms go beyond talking sense to actually nagging. Tobei achieves his ambition by luck but - although it is made clear that one of his prime motivations is a desire to impress his wife - his pursuit of his dream results in Ohama's fall into prostitution. Ironically, she becomes very successful as a whore and achieves, within her field, a degree of respectability while he knows that his lofty status is based on a lie and could come crashing down around him at any minute. Eventually they meet again by accident, realise that all they need is each other and live happily ever after. He doesn't try to become a samurai and she doesn't nag.

But what of Genjuro? He's not a bad man. He works hard (two jobs: farmer and potter, though we never actually see him do any farming) to provide money for his family and drag them from poverty. He's a good father and a devoted husband who seeks to keep his wife and son safe from pirates. He's a skilled potter whose work is admired and in demand. He doesn't even set out to spend time with Lady Wakasa (who says, at one point, "You probably think that I'm a ghost.") and certainly never sets out to marry her. In fact the only evidence of Genjuro's bigamy is Lady Wakasa's claim that they were married the previous night while drunk. Possibly in Vegas.

So okay, perhaps he stays with her longer than he should, but he then pays the price by losing all the profit he made from his pots when he awakes and is accused by the soldiers of being a thieving beggar who has taken a sacred sword from a temple. And what has Miyagi done to deserve a random and brutal killing as she carries her little boy home? Nothing, and maybe that's the point, but if so I'm not sure what the point is. Then she remains with her husband as a voice-over ghost, suggesting that there's nothing wrong with having a ghost wife so long as it's the right ghost.

It seems to me that Genjuro and Miyagi, who are good to each other and to their son, suffer unduly while Tobei and Ohama, whose love is hidden behind bickering, achieve redemption. I can't work it out at all.

Still, this is an interesting 'kaidan', very nicely shot and acted though never scary or even spooky and if Lady Wakasa's ghostliness is meant to be a twist, it's a thoroughly obvious one. The title is usually given in its Japanese form because it's not really translatable: 'monogatari' just means story/stories but 'ugetsu' is usually translated as 'pale and mysterious moon after the rain' which is a pretty specific thing to have a word for.

The film is based on two stories by Akinari Ueda which probably explains why the Tobei/Ohama tale and the Genjuro/Miyagi tale don't really have any connection other than the couples being friends and neighbours, the story wobbling rather uncertainly between all four characters. Director Kenzi Mizoguchi was born in 1898 and made his first film in 1922 after a few years as a cross-dressing actor. Ugetsu Monogatari was one of several films he made primarily to be shown at the Venice Film Festival. He also directed the 1941 Loyal 47 Ronin. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa lit Gonza the Spearman, Baby Cart in Peril, Yojimbo, Rashomon and a bundle of Zatoichi movies as well as other films for Mizuguchi.

Also in the cast are Ryosuke Kagawa (Sword of Doom), Shozo Nanbu (Warning from Space) and Ikio Sawamura who was in several Godzilla films as well as Atragon, Frankenstein Conquers the World, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood and two versions of The Loyal 47 Ronin in 1960 and 1962. It must be something you have to do to get your Japanese Equity card.

MJS rating: B

DVD: Amazon.com