Blog Directory CineVerse: Tales of moonlight and rain from the land of the rising sun

Tales of moonlight and rain from the land of the rising sun

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Ugetsu, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, is a cherished work of Japanese and world cinema for many reasons, from its stunning compositions and period-authentic costumes to its resonant themes and unique sound design. Our CineVerse mission in mid-December was to decipher the many truths imbued in this timeless masterwork from 1953. Our observations are shared below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).
  • Ugetsu Monogatari, which means “Tales of Moonlight and Rain,” was a key work that helped Western audiences discover Japanese cinema, much as Rashomon did three years earlier.
  • This film impressively weaves between the real and the surreal, the living world and the ghost world.
    • The scene where the two families traveled by boat along a fog-enshrouded lake is one of the most visually and tonally haunting sequences ever captured on film.
  • Contrary to expectations, the ghost sequences in this movie aren’t intended to shock or horrify. Recall how the spirit of Miyagi is gentle, loving, and non-threatening, for instance. And consider how Wakasa is actually a sympathetic victim of previous violence who rightfully desires love, faithfulness, and happiness.
  • Interestingly, our moral judgments and empathy can change throughout the movie. While we may feel consistent sympathy for Miyagi and her young child, it’s easy to feel unsympathetic for Genjuro and Tobei throughout the story, until perhaps Genjuro tries to escape the ghost of Lady Wakasa and Tobei is humbled by learning that his wife has been victimized.
  • The film is surprisingly relevant today in how it depicts the seemingly eternal disconnect between male and female partners, what each gender often values more, and how men often misinterpret what they think will make women happy.

Major themes

  • The repercussions of greed, envy, unbridled ambition, infidelity, and hedonistic pleasures.
    • However, Criterion Collection essayist Phillip Lopate wrote: “Are we to take it, then, that the moral of the film is: better stay at home, cultivate your garden, nose to the grindstone? No. Mizoguchi’s viewpoint is not cautionary but realistic: this is the way human beings are, never satisfied; everything changes, life is suffering, one cannot avoid one’s fate. If they had stayed home, they might just as easily have been killed by pillaging soldiers. The fact that they chose to leave gives us a plot, and some ineffably lovely, heartbreaking sequences.”
  • The value of honest work, simple pleasures, and a united family.
  • Taking for granted the blessings and good fortune you’ve been given.
  • The female victims and casualties of a patriarchal society driven by male egos.
    • Slant Magazine film critic Chuck Bowen wrote: “Ugetsu is a tragic and irreconcilably rapturous poem of violation. In the tradition of many male directors preoccupied with the atrocities suffered by women, Mizoguchi expresses his compassion through a pronounced and cleansing pitilessness.”
  • Appreciating the true value of skill, artistry, and expertise. 
    • According to film scholar Robin Wood: “Genjūrō's pottery…evolves in three phases, reflecting Mizoguchi's changing approach to filmmaking. Genjūrō begins making the pottery for commercial reasons, shifts to pure aesthetics while isolated with Lady Wakasa, and finally moves on to a style that reflects life and strives to understand it.” Some have theorized that Genjuro is a stand-in for the director Mizoguchi.
  • Expressing the emotional trauma suffered by the Japanese people following their country’s aggressive actions that provoked and prolonged World War II, with the 16th-century civil war setting of this story representing WWII.

Hallmarks of Mizoguchi’s filmmaking artistry

  • The “flowing scroll shot” was one of his trademarks, a “one-shot-one-scene” approach that employed long takes without cuts and sweeping pans across the landscape in the style of a Japanese scroll painting.
  • He favored fluid and continual camera movements meant to convey a poetic lyricism.
  • The director rarely used close-ups, often opting instead to keep the camera far back from the subject and sometimes choosing unconventional camera placements, as demonstrated by the emotionally powerful overhead shot of Miyagi being attacked by the soldiers on the road.
  • Mizoguchi was also inventive and innovative. Recall the nighttime scene where Genjuro and Lady Wasaka are bathing nude; the camera tracks left and cuts seamlessly using a dissolve to a daytime scene where the couple is picnicking near the picturesque shores of a shimmering lake.

Similar works

  • Throne of Blood
  • Rashomon
  • Kwaidan
  • Onibaba
  • Stories by French writer Guy de Maupassant

Other films by Kenji Mizoguchi

  • The 47 Ronin
  • The Life of Oharu
  • Sansho the Bailiff
  • New Tales of the Taira Clan
  • Street of Shame

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