Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
JAPAN --- fantasy/horror

Dir: Kenji Mizoguchi

Ghost stories are almost always used to expose the psychological defects of the stories’ characters. Often times like most horror tales, they will also sometimes reflect the underlying nightmares of the society in which the teller of the tale dwells. In other words, ghosts are buried secrets that won’t stay buried.

The lust of power, fame, and wealth lead two farmers into the clutches of their own nether regions in Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu Monogatari“. Taking place in 16th Century Japan, they are going through rampant civil wars. Genjurô is a farmer who happens to have become a successful potter, selling his goods for a decent wage. However, at the start of the film, he is arguing with his wife about his tireless ambition toe become well-known for his pottery. His brother and assistant, Tobei, also has a fruitless campaign to become a samurai to the bane of his wife Ohama, to which he and his wife also squabble over. There is a sequence which seems a completely accurate display of the process of pottery, perhaps in defense of the films’ protagonist to show the hard work that goes into it; though it is a group effort.

When warring barbaric bandits begin to filter into the village, often taking men for forced labor, stealing for and possessions, and killing and raping the women, Genjurô and Tobei flee for their lives. Unfortunately, Genjurô has just finished preparing some pottery in a kiln, and risks the fires going out when he isn’t there. Fortunately, the pottery survives, and Genjurô and his brother take what they can and flee the area on a boat nearby. While onboard the boat, they come upon another boat with a dying voyager who warns them that there is danger ahead, so Genjurô leaves behind his wife and son Miyagi and Genichi. They get to town and sell their items successfully. While there, Genjurô is approached by the wealthy noblewoman Lady Wakasa who invites him to her home, Kutsuki manor, and offers to buy his remaining items. Meanwhile, Tobei foolishy chases after the samurai army with the money he has in hopes of joining. His wife Ohama in turn chases after him, and is subsequently raped by bandits in a deserted monastery outside of town.

Genjurô is taken in by the intoxicating Lady Wakasa who claims to be a fan of his pottery skills and demands they get married immediately. She does quickly seduce Genjurô, to the point that pretty soon he forgets all about his family. At this point in the film, Mizoguchi shows us the fate of Miyagi and Genichi are a fending for their own back in the village which has been raided by ruthless bandits to and fro and murder her for scraps of food, leaving the child motherless. The film then focuses on Tobei's rise to power as a famous warrior, who quite accidentally kills a powerful general of an opposing army. He brings a decapitated head to another general who proclaims him to be a great warrior, thus making Tobei a great warrior. At this point, the two main characters lives grow to their height and quickly come crumbling down, as Genjurô discovers that his newlywed wife is a ghost and is assisted by a Buddhist priest excorcise the spirit. Tobei does not fare better, as he discovers that his wife has turned to prostitution and in her own right has become successful. Genjurô narrowly escapes the advances of his bride from beyond the grave, and returns to his village in search of his family.

Ugetsu Monogatari is a amalgam of cautionary tales and ghost stories used to their absolute excellence in displaying the worst in human nature. They are based on a couple of stories from a book called "Tales of Moonlight and Rain" by 18th century writer Ueda Akinari. "Asaji Ga Yado" (The House in the Thickets) which was a straight on ghost story and "Jasei No In" (The Lust of the White Serpent) which was another kind of ghost story but more uniformly traditional in the myth of a spirit in snake form. Mizoguchi paints these ghost stories with light and shadow, and utilizing the black and white imagery to convey certain specific emotions. It is possible he studied some of the Hollywood Universal horror films of the 30's and allowed his cinematographer to build on that feeling. There seemed to be a lot more ghost story films coming out of Japan after this period, and many find it interesting that they come about after the events of World War II.