I decided to stay in Japan a little while longer, perhaps. Director Kenzi Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu sits in a faintly neverland-y Japan; it’s based on a couple stories from an 18th Century collection of Japanese ghost stories (the Western equivalent might be a film based on one of the Grimm Brother’s darker works), so there’s a whiff of fable to the story. And it’s a cautionary tale to boot, looking at how greed and ambition wreak havoc on the lives of a pair of neighbors in medieval Japan.
Genjūrō (Masayuki Mori) is a farmer in a small Japanese village, trying to launch a side hustle as a potter. Selling his work calls for a trek to the nearest big city – a prospect which frightens his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), since Japan is on the brink of a civil war and she doesn’t want him lost in the shuffle. Neighboring couple Tōbei and Ohama (Eitaro Ozawa and Mitsuko Mito) are having a similar squabble, concerning Tōbei’s near-monomaniacal drive to become a samurai. The wives finally relent when the husbands agree to travel together – there’ll be safety in numbers, and Genjūrō can keep Tōbei out of too much trouble. Fortunately, their first trip is a quick one – and a profitable one for Genjūrō, who returns home with a handful of gold coins and a gorgeous new kimono for Miyagi and a toy for their son. Tōbei fares less well – when he accosts a general sitting in a café, begging to be brought under his tutelage, the general blows him off by saying “go get yourself armor and a spear first, then we’ll talk.”
Genjūrō and Tōbei quickly hatch plans to collaborate for a second trip. Genjūrō has been dazzled by the money he can make, and enlists Tōbei as a temporary sales hand, suggesting that Tōbei can use the money to buy his armor. Miyagi and Ohama still aren’t crazy about the idea – especially when war breaks out right when Genjūrō is racing to fire all his pots and they have to practically drag the men away to the woods. Genjūrō still can’t resist sneaking back after a couple hours to check the pots – and miraculously, they’re done. Genjūrō gets the idea that both families can flee by boat to another town – Genjūrō would have a new market for his pots, and both families would be safe.
But the party starts to break up when rumors of pirates out on the lake scare the refugees into bringing the women and children back ashore. But Ohama refuses to leave Tōbei, so she is quickly drafted as the third saleswoman. Miyagi and her son uneasily let them go; they’re a couple days’ walk from home, but if Miyagi sticks to the back roads she’ll be safe.
Things go a little pear-shaped for the sales party as well. They’re doing brisk business , fortunately, but soon Tōbei spots an armor salesman in another market stall and dashes off, hoping to buy his armor. Ohama chases after him, but loses him in the crowd – and then loses herself in the unfamiliar streets. And while he’s waiting for them both to come back, Genjūrō gets an unusual customer – a mysterious noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō) insists on buying him out completely, provided he bring everything to her mansion – and have dinner with her. And then some.
The four each have very different fates. Tōbei arguably does the best – he finally is awarded samurai status, but only through a sheer fluke, and ultimately it isn’t as satisfying as he’d hoped. Genjūrō spends several days frolicking with Lady Wakasa before starting to suspect that her hold on him is a little….otherworldly. Ohama sadly falls into the hands of four opportunistic soldiers who have, er, ungentlemanly intentions; while Miyagi’s path home isn’t quite as safe, or as free from attackers, as the others might have hoped.
I’m trying to be as vague about the stories as I can; the note of mystery, of “what’s gonna happen,” was part of what ultimately charmed me about this film. There were some plot points I spotted shortly before they happened – when Genjūrō first turns up at Lady Wakasa’s manor, I quipped to Roommate Russ that “I’m getting some serious Grey Gardens vibes off that place”. While I was able to spot the unworldly elements, I still appreciated the thrill of finding out the details.
Part of the fairy-tale feel was thanks to Mizoguchi’s camera work – loving shots of the little village where both families lived, spooky lighting in Lady Wasaka’s manor, a shot where we follow the charaters’ movements by just watching their shadows. There’s also a scene where Genjūrō runs into a house, and we follow him from the front door, through the empty room, to the back door – and then the camera stays inside as we follow Genjūrō’s path back outside and around to the front door again, where he magically finds someone inside the second time around. It’s a joyful moment, but still was un-real enough that I was suspicious – and at the same time, loved that un-reality.