To be honest, staging an approach to Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu from the West – decades of precedents and even the share of this part of the incipient Cineastes project notwithstanding – feels a bit like taking the place of a marauding warrior in the film: hungry, hasty, scanning for a scrap of received wisdom. With some research I can find, for instance, summary explications of mono no aware, the poignant quality of impermanence latent in all things; and I believe that this concept is a key to understanding this film–to feeling it, even. But I feel a bit presumptuous in marshaling this concept, and also whatever bits of received wisdom regarding Buddhism I carry in my head, as a critical solution to the film.
–but only a bit presumptuous. Are explicit statements of the transience of all things in a film (in words and dramatic action) rendered somehow opaque and obscure, when couched in a Buddhist context? If I were to think so, how would that notion differ from the cataractous idea of an Inscrutable Orient, after Forster? In any case, Ugetsu is for any viewer stalking the earth totally pellucid and in no way fogged with metaphysics. This quality could stem from the technique of Mizoguchi and screenwriters Matsutaro Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda; or from the lucid and direct quality of Buddhism or the aesthetic principle of mono no aware; or (best of all) from the vision of a crystal-clear aesthetic principle as seen through the orthoscopic lens of an elegant technique.
Donald Richie counterposes the characters of Japanese and Western cinema in simple axioms in his “A Definition of the Japanese Film” (in A Lateral View):
|The Japanese realize that the only reality is surface reality. They have no sense of hidden reality, no sense of conscience. They are a people without private guilt, though they do have social shame.||The West refuses to believe that surface reality is the only reality. For this reason Western religions suggest after-life and stress private conscience. Westerners have little sense of social shame but a great sense of private guilt.|
Even in the unlikely case that Richie’s generalizations hit askance of every other bit of Japanese cinema, I’m certain that here he’s hit the virtues of Ugetsu dead-on. More helpfully, what he’s said about the West gives some clue as to the peculiar virtues of the film relative to any Western film involving material ambition, marital infidelity, and ghosts.
Ugetsu has the ingredients of a domestic tragedy–but it doesn’t develop from that and doesn’t terminate there. As the film is faithful to Genjuro’s plight (with interludes of Tobei’s kyogen/comic-like storyline), it hits the road to Nagahama right at the start. The film begins with war threatening and Genjuro and Tobei hot for the opportunities it affords, peppered weakly by their wives’ chiding…until finally the war rolls over them and there is no longer a home-front to defend against ambition. No sooner does the domestic principle of hearth-and-home enter the frame than it’s behind us. (And in this respect Ugetsu reminds me a bit of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt [published 1867]–though, again, with Richie’s cultural-aesthetic comparisons in mind. The rough shape of Peer Gynt can be found in other places in cinema c.f. Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth .)
Miyagi is herself in a way already a spirit even when alive, a domestic hearth-spirit, the voice of principle: happy not for the kimono her husband buys her with his first windfall, but as she says “for the kindness of [his] heart.” She preaches sufficiency.
Genjuro’s kiln is like a burlesque of the hearth, as he tenders and frets over it. But his hearth burns brightly and quickly, and besides baking pots also kindles an insatiable material lust, and chases him back out on the roads to town with his wares. As Miyagi is a domestic hearth-spirit, Genjuro is a restless peripatetic creature. The world of the film accords with Genjuro, who has directed his path forward by the lights of the war. The world is made peripatetic, moving by back roads, and making and striking camp; and it’s absolutely inhospitable to women. Ohama’s stint in the whorehouse is like a proxy for the domestic arrangement she’s lost to the war. The song she sings earlier, while rowing on the lake, that “the world is but a temporary abode,” carries a literal significance beyond the religious one: “home” is destroyed, and families routed. Marauding troops forage like rats, are raping and murdering women, and stealing the men away as slaves. Principle is trounced under the weight of silver pieces. “Wisdom,” such as it is, rests on the palpable example: Genjuro knows only that the war’s a boon to his trade in pots. The dangers are profound – it’s an impossible situation these people are in – but the film doesn’t belabor the fact.
One mark of Mizoguchi’s mastery on this film is how, in his treatment of the ghost stories, he tips his hat as a matter of technique: how he tamps the sort of resonating ambiguities (is she real, or is she a ghost?), and shocks of suspense (she’s a ghost!), which many another filmmaker would have loaded into his/her narrative. (Dreyer’s Vampyr  is another great example of a film matter-of-factly introducing its supernatural elements.) Every ghost-movie which bloats its economy with ambiguities and shocks like these is hijacked, even if only a bit, by those devices. Mizoguchi makes the entry into dream or spirit realms patently clear with an hypnotic cue in Fumio Hayasaka’s score, where harp and celesta play arpeggios (a device Benjamin Britten used similarly to introduce the character Quint in his opera setting of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which premiered a year after Ugetsu). When it sounds, this musical cue – communicating as it does some kind of mental transport – leaves no ambiguity as to whether or not we’re on firm ground.
Genjuro “finds” the shade of Lady Wakasa along the path of his material delusion traced from the lust for quick money to reveries over a merchant’s luxurious kimonos. From the reverie over those kimonos he falls into the Kutsuki Manor illusion, where his pottery and those fine kimonos are apt–where not only the product of the work of his hands, but also his dreams win a sublime, rarefied context, out of nowhere: ” The value of people and things truly depends on their setting,” he says, coddled in the manor’s luxury. And here the lines of Genjuro’s and Tobei’s stories run parallel, with both men kind of falling up to become usurpers: Genjuro as the Lord of the Manor, seeing his wares through different eyes as high-aesthetic artifacts; and Tobei as a grand Samurai, instructing young aspirants in the Great Samurai’s curriculum (“Tactics: The Koshu school. Firearms: Karamaru school.”) . The kimonos for Genjuro and the armor for Tobei begin as fetish-objects, but those objects in turn spawn palpable, self-reflexive fantasies.
The approach to Kutsuki Manor is like the approach to Charles Foster Kane’s decrepit Xanadu behind its “No Trespassing” sign: the trio of Lady Wakasa, Genjuro and the old nurse walk behind high reeds which tower in the foreground and occlude the shot. The ragged gate swings creaking in the wind, and opens onto a neglected stone path. The screen doors are rotted and stripped, and the walls crumbling.
Her gates are gates of death, and from the entrance of the house
She sets out towards Sheol.
None of those who enter there will ever return,
And all who possess her will descend to the Pit.
— Dead Sea Scrolls, 4Q184
Genjuro’s entrance into the manor behind the old nurse reveals the screen doors and the courtyard’s stone paths whole again, arranged just so; and, again, the film doesn’t play the restoration for illusion or shock purposes. Mizoguchi’s sovereign illusion up to this point in the sequence has been to render the decrepit face of Kutsuki Manor. The heart of the manor’s illusion is immaculate: mannered, high-cultural, contemplatively and idly poised towards beauty. Lady Wakasa’s statement that “the fruit of experience is beauty,” directed ostensibly at Genjuro’s pottery, is enriched with irony when one reflects that this woman died young, is forever young, and has rejuvenated a ruin around herself. The ruin of the manor isn’t in fact decorous, whether in the form Genjuro sees as they approach it or when the illusion has completely gone, and he sees the kimonos hanging on the charred beams. I believe that the film doesn’t belabor Genjuro’s personal and moral dilemma of marital neglect/infidelity because it is dwarfed by the age-old natural struggle indexed on the ruined face of the manor.
Ghostly Miyagi’s last go-round at the hearth fire on her husband’s return is burlesqued, I think (though almost certainly not consciously) in a scene in Juzo Itami’s comedy Tampopo (1985) in which a distraught widower orders his newly-dead wife back alive to go in the kitchen and prepare her family one last meal–after which the woman promptly dies, again.
Miyagi reaches her apotheosis as what seems to me an instance of the nebulously-defined ewig weibliche, or “Eternal Feminine.” This is as it seems to me, anyway; but I have to note that Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), author of among many other things the stories on which Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) is based, denies that the Eternal Feminine (by which he means the idolization of women, and feminine beauty as an essential aesthetic principle) had ever taken any hold in Japanese culture or society. But her voiceover in the last scene, studio-recorded with just a touch of reverb, has the pervasive air of divinity (“I’m not dead. I’m by your side. Your illusions are gone now.”).