Ugetsu (1953)

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.

Genjuro prepares to go to Nagahama

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.

Ohama tries to stop Tobee, in vain
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!

A happy return from Nagahama
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.

Genjuro and Miyagi get to work
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.

Tobee lends a hand
Somehow Genjûrô and Tôbee manage to get all the pottery into the kiln, before passing out from fatigue. Their wives stay on watch, Miyagi making sure the fire in the kiln keeps burning.

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.

The troops attack the village
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.

Genjuro, Tobee and their wives set out
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.

A victim of pirates warns the travellers
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.

Miyagi and Genichi are left ashore
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.

A mysterious lady shows an interest in Genjuro's pottery
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.

Tobee gets his samurai armour and weapon
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.

Genjuro is taken to the Palace of the Kutsuki family
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.

Lady Wasaka praises Genjuro's work...
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…

An eerie dance, and a proposal
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.

A frame from Ugetsu
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.

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26 thoughts on “Ugetsu (1953)

  1. Once again a very attention grabbing review. I came here just to see whether you had posted anything new, I had decided to come back later and read it at leisure but just as i began to skim through it, I was hooked and I began reading it right till the end. Some of the Japanese films really are touching, long, long ago I remember seeing a Japanese film on Doordarshan the name of the film was either ‘Outcast’ or ‘Outsider’, that too was a beautiful film.

    • Shilpi, I have to admit to a particular fondness for Japanese films. Kurosawa, of course, is one of my favourite directors – irrespective of country and time period – but even otherwise, I’ve come across lots of Japanese films that I like a lot. I don’t remember anything along the lines of Outcast or Outsider, but there’s an excellent Kurosawa film called Stray Dog (starring a very young and handsome Toshiro Mifune as a cop whose revolver is stolen on a bus).

      • Sounds intriguing. You know back in the good old days of Doordarshan, sometime during the late seventies I think, an international film festival was on in India, I do not remember the city in which it was being held, it was either Bombay or Delhi. Some of the most eminent filmmakers had gathered here amongst them were Kurosawa, Eli Kazan and Satyjajit Ray. All three of them took part in a discussion along with well-known film journalist Amita Mallik, it was a fabulous programme. Many years later, I read a comment by Ms Mallik, she had been very satisfied with the discussion and was quite upset that Doordarshan had not preserved it. I wish it was preserved now that I am older, I would have been able to appreciate it more than I did back then.

        • That must have been an interview to thrill any cinema buff! I can imagine how fabulous it must have been. Trust Doordarshan to let it disappear into the unknown. :-( I wonder what happened to some of those other great programmes – serials, DD shows by famous singers and performances (I remember Rafi singing Madhuban mein Radhika naache re…). I have a creepy feeling many of those wouldn’t have survived, either.

            • Those were also the days of video tapes (I’m talking of the mid-80s). My sister and I used to always put in a blank tape when Chitrahaar came on, and managed to record some really little-known but lovely songs that way, such as Chaand bhi koi deewaana hai. We never recorded shows like the Rafi one because those were invariably shown as fillers, often truncated. So if the DD staff had run into one of their fairly frequent glitches, they’d start the Rafi show (or something similar) and play it until they got their act together… and then they’d stop in mid-song.

              • Actually, I recorded it when the programme was being telecast for the first time and not as a filler.Prior to the telecast there were promos announcing the show, I was therefore prepared with my tape recorder. Naushad was narrating interesting anecdotes and telling the history behind each song, it was quite an interesting programme, I therefore had all the songs without any interruptions.

  2. Sounds fascinating, though things that are left to my imagination make me go all shivery and think of things that go bump in the night.
    Thanks for another good review, Madhu; I should look for this.

  3. Madhji,

    Thank you for another wonderful review which induced me to watch the movie.

    Men ruthlessly driven by their greed, run after mirages and illusions and get all the more isolated from the simplest sources of happiness. We often confuse between Dreams and Illusions on one hand and get befogged by our nightmares on the other. Very poignant movie.

    I had two choices for this weekend. For some time my son was asking me to see the movie, Beautiful Mind. Then we decided to watch both. You should do a review on this movie too.

    • “We often confuse between Dreams and Illusions on one hand and get befogged by our nightmares on the other.” Very well said, Venkataramanji. This inability to differentiate between dreams and illusions is so often the downfall of our human race…

      Do you mean the Russell Crowe starrer A Beautiful Mind? I remember having seen that when it was released; a very touching and good film, and with excellent acting from Crowe. I won’t review it here, though, since I restrict this blog only to pre-70s cinema…

  4. Ava and I watched this film today and we both liked it a lot.
    We were of the opinion that it could have been remade in India in the 50s with Balraj Sahni, Nirupa Roy, Minoo Mumtaz, Johnny Walker and Bela Bose.

    • I’m glad both of you liked it, Harvey!

      That’s an interesting cast you suggest. I agree – but do you suggest Minoo Mumtaz as Lady Wakasa, or as Ohama? (I’m assuming Nirupa Roy plays the longsuffering Miyagi).

  5. First I thought of Minoo Mumtaz as Lady Wakasa, but later on I thought, that this role could be given to Shakila or Sheila Ramani and Minoo Mumtaz could get the role of Ohama. Bela Bose was present on the screen only in the late 50s. Nirupa Roy as Miyagi of course, but even Nargis would suit that role, I think.

    • So Bela Bose was an afterthought?

      I think Nirupa Roy is the perfect Miyagi. :-) I somehow associate Nargis with playing rather more strong-willed characters (not that she always did). Sheila Ramani or Shakila – or even Indira Billi, who was pretty spooky in Kohraa – might be a Lady Wakasa.

  6. I hate to be picky but there is a typo in the 3rd paragraph. The story takes place in 16th century Japan not 18th.

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