Sunday, October 20, 2013

Kenji Mizoguchi | Ugetsu

the value of things
by Douglas Messerli

Matsutarō Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda (screenplay, based on stories by Akinari Ueda and Guy de Maupassant), Kenji Mizoguchi (director) Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari) / 1953

The camera sweeps across a lake, moving down into a provincial village of flimsily-built cottages, suddenly immersing us in the lives of the peasants who are terrified of the nearby gun-fire. The time is the late 16th century and the place is the shore of Lake Biwa in Ōmi Province, where the characters are trapped between warring factions.

      Despite the imminent attack of forces hostile to the small village, the farmer-potter Genjurō (Masayuki Mori) is determined—against the pleas of his wife Miyagi for him to stay and home and prepare for the invasion—to take his wares to the town of Ōmizo, where he hopes to sell them for a substantial profit. His brother, Tōbei, a clumsy oaf of a farmer, wants to join him on his trip, his wife, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), also insisting that he stay behind to attend to things. But the men move forward in space, leaving their frightened wives and Miyagi’s son behind.

     Returning soon after, Genjurō proudly displays the heavy gold bars his has earned, while Tōbei, who has encountered a passing troop of samurai swordsmen, is more determined than ever to join the warring forces. The battle cries can be heard even closer to their village of Nakanogō, and Miyagi and her sister-in-law Ohama demand that their husbands prepare for an escape from the impending attack. Genjurō, so delighted by his profits, however, can only continue to work, firing up his kiln once more to create more cups, bowls, and vases for sale. When they are finally forced to flee, he is terrified that the kiln fire will be extinguished and he will have lost everything. Clearly, as his wife warns him, he has lost the sense, like Tōbei, of the “value of things,” having abandoned the love of wife and family for objects, money and what it can buy.

     So Kenji Mizoguchi establishes from the very beginning of his great film, Ugetsu, that war  whether, as he put it, “it originates in the ruler’s personal motives or in some public concern,” creates an aura of violence that “oppresses and torments the populace, both physically and spiritually.”

    The fire in Genjurō’s beloved kiln has gone out, but the pottery has nonetheless baked beautifully, and, upon returning to the destroyed village, he is determined to take another route to town, this time across the lake. The eerie trip across Lake Biwa, with both couples and their son aboard a small boat is one the most beautiful scenes of a film of arresting images. Fog and smoke swirl up against the quiet beat of the oars, bulrushes peeking through the water’s surface. Mizoguchi is clearly taking his characters in a frightening ghost-like world from which there is no return. Suddenly they encounter what appears to be an empty boat, which, they soon discover, contains a dying man, who warns them of pirates, urging them to return to shore. But the now demented brothers will not cease in their voyage, returning to shore only to leave behind their wives and the child. Ohama, however, refuses to leave, and Miyagi is left behind with her son upon her back, ruefully prepared to return to their war-torn home.

     The other three make it to the city, and, once again, Genjurō’s pottery brings in a hefty profit, part of which he shares with Tōbei and his wife, the former sneaking off the moment he receives his share to secretly purchase a suit of samurai armor and a sword before surreptitiously joining with a samurai clan. Left alone, Ohama wanders back toward her village, where, observed by straggling warriors, is captured and raped, leaving her utterly alone and disgraced.

     Meanwhile a noble woman and her servant visit Genjurō’s pottery stand, and order several pieces to be delivered to the Kutsuki mansion. Soon after, the potter packs up the purchases and scurries away in the direction of the mansion, first stopping by a stand that sells beautiful kimonos, one of which he hopes to purchase for his wife, dreaming of the joy with which she will receive it. As Miyagi has previously told him, however, she would rather have his love that these beautiful fabrics. But Genjurō, now completely swept up in the objective world, the world of things in space, cannot resist.

     At that very moment, however, the wealthy noblewoman and her servant appear again, presuming that he may need guidance to their palace. Without even wondering about their reoccurrence, the peasant gladly follows them, as they invite him inside, preparing tea.

     The woman of the manor, the beautiful Lady Wakasa, dressed like a Noh heroine, with burnishes of coal upon her forehead, her face covered with veils, explains that the family and house have previously been attacked, her family members killed, leaving her and three servants. Her father, she admits, haunts the mansion.

     The viewer quickly perceives that something is amiss, that Lady Wakasa is not completely to be believed. But the refined woman, praising the beauty of the potter’s green lacquered bowls, utterly seduces the crude Genjurō, who can only proclaim “I never dreamed such pleasures existed.” Soon after, the beautiful lady makes sexual advances as well, which through the director’s always fluid camera, is presented not in literal terms, but as a kind of visual scroll of events, moving away from their love-making near a stream, to follow the water’s path across the screen to reach yet a more sensuously-wrought scene of the our “hero” ensconced in an open pool where, soon, Lady Wakasa joins him, the rippling water transforming into another image of the two picnicking upon the grass. The viewer, in short, is equally seduced by Mizoguchi’s images as is Genjurō by the lady’s words and actions, as she easily convinces the village potter into a new marriage.

     Back in the war-torn Nakanogō, forces search the village homes in search of remaining women and food. Miyagi and her son briefly hide from the soldiers, fortunately discovered by an elderly neighbor, and taken away to safety in the woods. There, however, a group of soldiers come upon her, demanding her pack of food. Desperate to keep enough to feed her son, she attempts to fight them off, her son still positioned on her back. Stabbed by the soldiers, she collapses.

     Tōbei, observing a defeated warrior demanding that his servant cut off his head in ritual suicide, kills the servant and claims the head, returning to the samurai clan to insist that he has murdered the enemy. He is awarded men and horses, and proudly rides off toward Nakanogō to demonstrate to his wife his now elevated position. Before he can reach home, however, he is convinced by his men and an innkeeper to stay the night in a geisha house to award his soldiers. He does so only to discover his wife within, now working as a geisha. After explaining her plight to her husband, Ohama is embraced by Tōbei, who, having apparently learned his lesson, travels on to their home without his men and armor, a chastened man.

     So ends the comic version of Mizoguchi’s dual tale. The more tragic version is played out with Genjurō’s gradual discovery that his new wife has actually been killed long before and that the mansion no longer exists. The priest who warns him of these facts attempts to exorcise the power of the ghost by painting Buddhist prayers across the potter’s body. Returning to the mansion, Genjurō admits to Lady Wakasa that he has already been married and has a son, and that he now wants to return home. Wakasa and her servant admit that they are ghosts, but have been granted a return so that the Lady might find the love which in her life she had been denied. She now refuses to release Genjurō, but when she perceives the prayers inscribed upon his body, quickly pulls away, demanding that he wash them off. Genjurō reaches for a sword and escapes the house, only to discover the next morning that it no longer exists, is nothing but a pile of burnt rubble.

      So too does the now contrite potter return him, to find his wife, Miyagi, delighted by his return. Holding his sleeping son, Genjurō falls into an exhausted sleep. The next morning he awakens to find himself alone, an older villager knocking at his door. Surprised to see his long-missing neighbor, the elder explains that he has been caring for Genjurō’s son, but that the boy evidently escaped during the night, returning to his old home. Genjurō calls for his wife, the neighbor explaining that she has died. In desire of “things” Genjurō has been left with nothing—except for the inexpressible love for his child.

     In the final scene we witness the son and Genjurō offering a bowl of rice up to the memory of Miyagi. The camera’s track, reversing its original projection, moves from the grave, sweeping up into the air and, once again, soaring over the nearby lake, the scroll of Mizoguchi’s spool of film ending near to where it had begun.

Los Angeles, October 19, 2013

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