Or, if you want the complete, expanded name, Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), named for the collection of supernatural stories by 18th century Japanese writer, Ueda Akinari. Two of the stories from this book—Asaji ga Yado (House amid the Thickets) and Jasei no In (Lust of the White Serpent) were adapted, and directed by Kenji Mizoguchi in what was to become one of the most highly acclaimed Japanese films of all time: Ugetsu went on to win the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival; has been listed as one of the best films made in Sound and Sight magazine’s top ten critics poll; and has appeared in countless other ‘best movies’ lists.
Without wasting more time on listing its achievements, though, something about what the story is all about.
We begin with a brief introduction to the time and place. This is 18th century Japan; a civil war is raging; and in a small rural community, the villagers are trying hard to keep body and soul together despite the violence that surrounds them. When we get into the story proper, it’s to find a potter, Genjûrô (Mayasuki Mori), loading a consignment of his pottery onto a cart to take to market.
Genjûrô’s wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) is helping him with the work, and worrying gently, too. Her husband, after all, has a long way to go, and what with the countryside overridden by marauding enemy armies, there is cause for worry.
Genjûrô’s neighbour, Tôbee (Eitarô Ozawa) is also eager—very eager—to go along with the potter. That is because Tôbee has only one ambition in life: to be a samurai. There’s little hope of his ever getting to be a samurai tucked away in this forgotten corner of rural Japan, so Tôbee feels that if he goes along with Genjûrô to Nagahama, he’ll be able to find a samurai to latch on to and apprentice with, so to say.
Tôbee’s wife, the much-harassed Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) is rather more blunt than Miyagi when it comes to dissuading: unlike the meek Miyagi, Ohama makes no bones about telling Tôbee he’s a fool, and that he would be much better off staying here at home. Tôbee, however, manages to shake her off and goes away with Genjûrô. Miyagi (with her little son, Genichi) and Ohama are left fretting for the welfare of their respective menfolk.
Seemingly unnecessarily, as it turns out. A few days later, an exhilarated Genjûrô returns, with a not-quite-so-excited (but at least safe and whole) Tôbee. The market at Nagahama has proved a treasure trove for Genjûrô; he’s made more money than ever before, and has even been able to indulge in unthought-of extravagances: he’s bought Miyagi a fine kimono, too!
Miyagi is excited and, more importantly for her, very relieved that her husband has come back safe and sound. The problem is, now that Genjûrô’s had a taste of the wealth that awaits him at Nagahama or any of the other big cities, he isn’t going to rest until he’s obtained more of it.
When Miyagi tries to point out that there’s no hurry, they have more than enough to be comfortable, and that Genjûrô shouldn’t tempt fate by travelling any more during these tumultuous times, he silences her. Rot, he says. This war, far from making a dent in business, has opened up the market further. If Genjûrô can quickly mould and bake another kiln-load of pottery within the next couple of days, he can go out once more.
While Genjûrô has been rejoicing over his earnings and making plans, Tôbee has been simmering with discontent. His hopes were dashed on his visit to Nagahama: even though he did present himself to a samurai and begged to be taken into service, he was shooed off with a stern admonition to not pester people, and to get an armour and spear before even imagining he could be a samurai. Tôbee, of course, being as poor as he is, cannot hope to be able to buy either.
Now, as Genjûrô works frantically—with Miyagi roped in to turn the wheel, even neglecting poor little Genichi in the process—Tôbee comes to offer his services. Genjûrô needs help to keep the fire going in the kiln, so he’s happy to accept. And, as an incentive, he offers the wannabe samurai a third of the money from the sale of the pottery. An offer, of course, that Tôbee jumps at.
While the men are asleep, the women suddenly hear an uproar in the village nearby. They scramble up, waking the men as they do so. All of them rush off to try and figure out what’s happening, and discover that the much-dreaded enemy troops have attacked. They’re coming through the village, plundering and looting, killing and laying waste.
Genjûrô, who can’t think beyond his precious pottery, is inclined to slink back to his kiln and keep an eye on it—he’s certain he’ll be able to evade the troops—but Miyagi, by force and much frantic pleading, manages to stop him. Somehow, they wait long enough to see the soldiers come by, tearing things down, breaking down part of the kiln and swearing angrily when they discover it’s only a potter’s kiln…
When the soldiers have disappeared, Genjûrô hurries to check on his wares—and finds that they are, to his surprise, perfectly made. Quickly, he tells Miyagi and Tôbee and Ohama, who have all hurried up. Quickly. If they help him, he can save this entire lot and take it away to sell in the city. Not over the mountains; the inland route is too dangerous now. But if they borrow one of the deserted boats by the shore, Ohama (whose father was a sailor, and who is therefore very capable of handling a boat) can ferry them across.
The four of them hurry to load the boat, and soon both couples, along with little Genichi, are in the boat. It’s too unsafe, Genjûrô’s decided, to leave Miyagi and their toddler behind, so they too had better come along.
Ohama is poling the boat along when, through the mist that surrounds them, they see another boat approaching, seemingly empty. “It’s a boat ghost!” goes up the general cry of horror.
But no, it’s no ghost, though the lone man in the boat is on the verge of death. He manages to stay alive long enough to tell Genjûrô and Co. that he was attacked, robbed, and beaten by pirates, who infest the waters ahead.
The man dies moments after, and Genjûrô—who, after all, loves his wife and child—decides that Miyagi and Genichi are better off at their village. He gets Ohama to put in to shore nearby, and Miyagi disembarks with her son. Genjûrô tells her he’ll be back within the next ten days: only as long as it takes him to reach the city, sell his pottery, and make the trip back. The farewell between husband and wife is emotional but restrained: it’s obvious they’re both worried about each other’s safety, but they don’t get melodramatic about it.
Genjûrô and his two companions, Tôbee and Ohama, arrive at a city market, and soon Genjûrô is doing brisk business. His pottery is much in demand, and even attracts the attention of a mysterious and alluring lady who comes by with an older woman. They examine his pottery, make a request for various items—bowls, plates, a vase, sake cups—and ask Genjûrô to deliver the pottery they’ve chosen. Come to the Kutsuki Palace, they tell him, before they leave. Genjûrô is intrigued, and flattered, too, that such an obviously genteel lady should have found his pottery worthy of notice.
Meanwhile, Tôbee (who has, according to their agreement, received a third of the money from the sale of the pottery), runs off in search of an armourer. Ohama, seeing him go, runs after him, but to no avail. Tôbee hears her calling for him and evades her, leaving poor Ohama racing about in a panic, trying to push her way through the crowd, searching the maze of alleys in a fruitless attempt to find her husband.
But Tôbee has already found an armourer, bought armour and a spear for himself, and gone off to become a samurai. Without another thought for what will happen of Ohama.
And Genjûrô, having sold off the rest of his pottery, is just beginning to wonder where his old friends and neighbours have disappeared, when the two ladies from Kutsuki Palace turn up again. Genjûrô has the pottery already packed in straw, and they insist he accompany them. “Did you get lost?” he’s asked, as they hurry him through a rather overgrown yard, tall with grasses, into the mansion.
Here, Genjûrô has, within moments, completely forgotten Tôbee and Ohama and Miyagi and Genichi. The Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo), as she’s introduced by her old nurse, is beautiful and charming, and compliments Genjûrô on the excellence of his porcelain. On the heels of this compliment comes another, even harder to believe: the Lady Wakasa wishes to marry Genjûrô. They will live together and be supremely happy for the rest of their years.
And Genjûrô is so befuddled, so utterly enthralled by all that he sees and experiences—the elegance of the palace, the beauty of the Lady Wakasa, the quiet luxury of the surroundings—that he does not even stop to say he’s already married, and a father to boot. Before the night is over, the ‘bridegroom’ has been taken to another room, dressed in fine robes by attentive maids, been danced to (and an eerie dance it is, too), and been seduced by Lady Wakasa…
Ugetsu is a story of illusions. At a superficial level, there is the illusion that is Lady Wakasa. There’s something definitely unsettling about her (though Genjûrô does not realise it till much later) from the very beginning, all the way from the rather flat, emotionless look in her eyes to the very fashionable but eerie makeup she wears (those shaved eyebrows, recreated in paint high up on her forehead, add to the general creepiness).
Then there are the twin illusions that lure Genjûrô and Tôbee from the very first scene of the film: of wealth and power and prestige. Both men are ambitious to the point of greed, and have deluded themselves into believing that attaining that end—selling lots of pottery, or becoming a samurai—will be the ultimate happiness. But will it? Will this illusion (like Lady Wakasa) be just a wonderful chimera, something that lures these two men on, beckoning them, making them forsake family and friends, for something that may cost them more dearly than they can imagine?
And there are more illusions—and the shattering of those illusions—to come.
What I liked about this film:
The simplicity of the story. There are two basic stories, both fairly similar, of two men lured away from family and duty, and the repercussions of that ambition and greed, not just on the men themselves, but also on those they hold dear. There are no complicated side plots, no cluttering up of the story with too many characters: just a simple moral tale of how dangerous greed can be.
The visuals. Many of the frames are pure poetry. This one, for example, of Ohama poling the boat along through the mist, could almost be a painting.
The quietly eerie way in which Lady Wakasa and her household are depicted. There is something wrong with the Kutsuki Palace (even if Genjûrô is too besotted to see it), but exactly what it is, is difficult to say. Kenji Mizoguchi, however, manages to create, through subtle details, an atmosphere that makes you wonder: is it my imagination, or is there something really spooky about this? For instance, when Genjûrô is invited to wed Lady Wasaka, he sees candles being lit in a succession of rooms, one after the other, by maids. And one room lights up suddenly, though the candle remains unlit—or is it? Has somebody entered, perhaps, with a lit candle?
Ugetsu is listed as a ghost story. This isn’t a horror story, not in the conventionally gory way cinema—at least modern cinema—tends to show it. It is much more understated, and more suggestion than anything else, till almost the end. If you have a vivid imagination, parts of it can be chilling. If not, well—it’s still an interesting story, and a poignant one too, eventually.
What I didn’t like:
Nothing, really, now that I think of it. I will admit, though, that while I liked and admired Ugetsu a lot, I didn’t think it was one of those mind-blowingly fantastic masterpieces most viewers seem to regard it as. Touching, yes; memorable, yes; well-crafted, yes. But one of the best films ever made? Perhaps not. But worth a watch, certainly.