Kenji Mizoguchi on Blu-ray: Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) review
Afraid of ghosts? In Mizoguchi’s supernatural fable, it’s life – bitter, violent and capricious – that you have to watch out for.
(Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
In American movies, movie ghosts tend to be vengeful demons and malevolent wraiths, determined to suck the goodness from the living. That’s true of a lot of Japanese cinema, too, but there’s also a rich tradition of allowing spirits to be more ambiguous – simply the dead, killed too early and unwilling to depart the earth. The literal translation of Ugetsu Monogatari, ‘Tales Of the Moon and Rain’, hints at the sad, spectral quality of Kenji Mizoguchi’s supernatural fable as it drifts on the breezes of fate and ill-fortune.
Mizoguchi’s ghost story is different for another reason. Where those hypothetical American directors want to shock through abrupt editing, Mizoguchi creates seamless transitions between the real and the supernatural through virtually invisible dissolves, shifts in lighting and (in one particularly stunning shot) ‘how did they do that?’ scenery changes. Ghosts are simply a fact of life in the cruel, capricious society of war-torn, feudal 16th century Japan.
Crucially, too, Ugetsu Monogatari is only half a ghost story – but that only adds to the film’s unusual, unpredictable texture. The film dramatises two tales from the short story collection by Ueda Akinara that gives the film its title, combining them into a single narrative about two brothers determined to get ahead during a time of civil war. One wants to become wealthy selling pottery; the other is chasing the glory of becoming a samurai. Thematic links are strong, and it’s a given that these two are upsetting the natural order of things, and the chaos is going to bite them back.
If there’s a flaw here, the film is a little too conservative in its conclusions as the men’s ambitions lead to their ruin and their loved ones’ suffering, the ghost story and the more prosaic tale heading downhill in parallel. For all the incredible technique (ethereal studio-created ‘exteriors,’ dissonant music and mask-like ghost make-up derived from Noh theatre) the story’s fable of hubris comes down to ‘stay at home and keep your head down.’
What saves the film is its tender, serene ending. Apparently, Mizoguchi wanted a harsher ending but – in an inversion of what happened to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown – producers pulled rank for a gentler, more forgiving ending. That redemptive quality turns a harsh morality lesson into something more bittersweet, bringing that moment of beatific calm and closure that Mizoguchi’s ghosts crave.