Ugetsu Monogatari

Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953, 94 minutes

Genjuro the potter lives with his wife Miyagi next door to Tobei the farmer and his wife Ohama, Genjuro’s sister. Genjuro dreams of being rich, Tobei of being a respected samurai. The two families set off across Lake Biwa to the city of Oziwa in search of their fortunes. En route they meet a dying boatman who warns of bandits, prompting Genjuro to leave Miyagi behind. The others travel to the city. There Tobei meets a group of samurai and abandons Ohama to join them, while Genjuro finds a buyer for his pottery in Lady Wasaka. Enchanted by her, Genjuro forgets all about his wife. Alone and defenceless she is raped and murdered by bandits. Meanwhile, Tobei advances through the ranks through treachery and murder.

Eventually both Genjuro and Tobei come to see the error of their ways and the damage their ambitions have wrought on their families. Genjuro meets a priest who realises that the Lady Wasaka is a ghost, while Tobei, now a samurai with men at his command, happens upon Ohama, working as a prostitute to make ends meet. Disenchanted and wiser for their experiences, the two men return home.

A regular on critics “best of” lists, the film is basically perfect. The technique is flawless, brilliantly evoking a feudalistic world where brutal realism and the supernatural co-exist and intermingle, while the Buddhist message that desire leads to suffering is conveyed without being sledgehammered home. A comparison with Rashomon makes the point: where Kurosawa has a character verbalise his despair at the impossibility of our attaining the truth, Mizoguchi conveys as much, if not more, through distinctively cinematic devices. The final shot of Ugetsu Monogatari mirrors the opening. “Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose” indeed.

Mizoguchi once said that the aim of the film was to convey that, “Whether war originates in the ruler’s personal motives, or in some public concern, how violence, disguised as war oppresses and torments the populace, both physically and spiritually”. It succeeds magnificently.

Review by David Khune Jr.
Written for EUFS Programme Autumn 2002