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 237th Meeting – Tuesday, August 12th 2003

"Ugetsu (a classical Japanese story collection) Cinematized"

A talk and film presentation by Dr. Paul McCarthy

Present: Hans Bänziger, Bonnie Brereton, John Butt, John Cadet, Kanokwan Mibunlue Cadet, Jim Campion, Guy Cardinal, David Engel, Charlotte Favre, Louis Gabaude, Penelope Hall, Celeste Holland, Julia Hoover, Robert Jones, Otome Klein, Peter Kunstadter, Sally Kunstadter, Lix Maëlenn, Pierre-Yves Mossmann, Richard Nelson-Jones, Adrian Pieper, Renee Vines, Theo de Visser, Roshan ?hunjibhoy.  An audience of 24.

Paul’s background: BA in English literature and Japanese (double major) from U. of Minnesota, 1966; Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University, 1975 (specializing in Japanese literature). I have taught Japanese, English, and Comparative Literature at universities in the US and Japan. Currently Professor of Comparative Cultures at Surugadai University, Saitama, Japan. Articles on Japanese novelists Tanizaki Jun'ichiro and Mishima Yukio; book-length translations of novels, short stories, and memoirs by Tanizaki Jun'ichiro and Umehara Takeshi. Currently working on a translation of a cultural/historical work on the Horyuji (temple) in Nara, by Umehara Takeshi.

The full text of Paul’s presentation:

Ugetsu monogatari by Mizoguchi Kenji : the family as Threatened Ideal.
Director Mizoguchi's cinematic masterpiece bears the title of, and was inspired by, Ueda Akinari's literary masterpiece of the Edo period. But of the nine stories that make up Akinari's work (written and published in the 1760's-70's), Mizoguchi has used only two. The opening and closing scenes are based on Asaji ga yado, while the longest section, dealing with Genjûrô's life with the ghost-woman Wakasa no hime, depends on Jasei no in.
Even in the case of these two stories, however, the plots, names and natures of the principal characters, and, above all, the tones of the eighteenth-century tales and the twentieth-century film, are very different. A detailed comparison is impossible here, but, to put the matter in a few words, whereas Ueda's tales are more emphatically eerie and supernatural, and humanly "cooler", it seems to me, Mizoguchi injects a great deal of twentieth-century humanist "warmth" into his film, while retaining important supernatural elements. The balance of and interplay between these two very different aspects of the film, Ugetsu monogatari, greatly enhance its power to move us, the contemporary audience.
Let us first note the historical context Mizoguchi chooses for his tales: The Sengoku period, the time of "the country at war". The firm rule of the Kamakura Shogunate and the lighter grip of the Ashikaga were far in the past, and the imposed feudal order of the Tokugawa Period was in the future. The Sengoku Period in the 16th century was one of near chaos and anarchy, every man for himself, "the world gone topsy-turvy" (gekokujô, the lowly winning out over "their betters").

In the first scene of the film, the camera does a slow pan over a village, the surrounding fields and mountains. The mood is tranquil, pastoral, idyllic. We see a man hard at work baking clay pots in his kiln, while his wife busily assists him and at the same time watches over their infant son. They are a poor, hard-working but happy family. The man, Genjûrô, takes this first batch of pots to a nearby market town and is delighted at the profit he makes from their sale. A little too delighted perhaps: we see in him a tendency toward the vice of greed. He buys his wife a gorgeous silken robe, evidence both of his sensitivity to beauty and his very real love of his wife, Miyagi. She is pleased and grateful, but warns him that things may not always go so well and insists that all she really wants is he beside her in their home. Miyagi is thus seen to be prudent in her awareness of the uncertainties of life and to value her husband's love, what might now almost be called "family values", rather than the luxuries that money can buy.

Meanwhile, a parallel story is unfolding. Genjûrô's younger brother Tôbei, discontented with farming, hopes to become a samurai. In the disordered world of Sengoku, this is not an impossible dream. His first attempt, however, is a failure, for he lacks even the armor and weapons which are the minimum equipment of a samurai. His wife, O-hama, mocks and scolds him for his folly. She is as much of a prudent realist as her sister-in-law Miyagi, but a far tougher character: not the forbearing, docile wife of Japanese tradition, but a wife who "wears the pants" in the family. There is a slightly comic aspect to this role reversal (the weak would-be samurai and his strong stay-at-home wife), but a serious point is being made: as with the other couple, here too the wife is the prudent, stable center of the family while the husband goes off in search of "glory".

Thus, already in the first few minutes of the film, its main themes are adumbrated. But soon there is a real threat to the quiet little world of the two couples; soldiers are sighted about to enter the village. Genjûrô is unwilling to leave his new batch of partially baked pots--all his work will go for nothing, and no profit will be made. Here, the theme of male shortsightedness and greed for gain appears in clearer form. Miyagi frantically persuades Genjûrô to leave the pots in order to save his life, and succeeds at the last moment. Her concern is to escape with her husband and their little son, to safety in the surrounding hills. Most of the shots have been "distanced" up to now, without close-up. But as Miyagi rushes to pick up her sleeping child and carry him to safety, the camera approaches her, and we are given a close-up shot (rather rare for Mizoguchi) of her anxious, loving, maternal face.
The family escape, and the intruders finally leave the village. Genjûrô, venturing back to check his pots, is delighted to see they are perfectly baked and decides to go to a market town to sell them. And so "the journey" begins. Thinking there will be safety in numbers, Genjûrô, Miyagi and child set out along with their relatives, Tôbei and O-hama. The family group begins to row across the nearby Lake Biwa, and the mood of the film changes dramatically. Up to now, we have had a rather gritty realism: the world of work, war and its dangers, and sudden flight. But now the scene is of the surface of the lake, covered with mist, and the boat which O-hama rows to the rhythm of a folk-song she sings, and distant drumbeats. There is an eeriness to the scene even before an apparently empty, unmanned boat drifts into view. A ghostly boat, they think at first. But as it drifts nearer they hear groans and, looking inside, see a man in his death-agony. "Pirates" he says, and with his dying breath warns them to take care lest they lose everything--their possessions, their wives, and their very lives. Again the theme of lawlessness, violence and death has made an appearance, as in the earlier scene of the soldiers' attack. We return again to a more realistic world, without mist, folksongs, mysterious drumbeats, and ghostly ships. The party decide they should split up. In view of the threat of pirates, Miyagi and the boy are put ashore and told to make their way back to the village. The camera lingers on the figure of Miyagi, following her as she walks along the riverbank, showing her to us in profile, full-face, and finally, at the end of the scene, from the back, as she anxiously waves goodbye to her husband and the others and prepares to set off with her child, for home.

Now the film divides into four separate stories: the tale of Genjûrô selling his pots in the market; Miyagi's attempt to reach the safety of home; the adventures of Tôbei as he tries to become a samurai; and the ups-and-downs of his wife O-hama, whom he has left behind. The scene shifts from one story to the other, the colorful adventures of the husbands being contrasted with the painful fates of their wives in ironic and pathetic juxtaposition.

First, Genjûrô: As he sits in the market place selling his pots, an elegant young woman and an elderly lady-attendant approach, make several purchases, and direct him to deliver them to the Kutsuki mansion on the edge of town. The young woman is played by Kyô Machiko, known worldwide for this role, and also for her part in Kurosawa Akira's ‘Rashômon’, and much admired by Tanizaki Jun'ichirô as embodying his ideals of female beauty and seductive power. With her cold, aristocratic beauty and dominating ways, she stands in clear contrast to Miyagi's more modest ways, as portrayed by Tanaka Kinuyo, one of Mizoguchi's favorite actresses.

The Lady and her elderly attendant offer to guide Genjûrô back to the mansion to deliver his wares. In what is a kind of michiyiku, the two women take the lead as they make their way slowly, in single-file through a wilderness of pampas grass, at last reaching the gate the mansion, shown momentarily to the audience in a highly dilapidated state - a brief foreshadowing of the mansion's true nature. Lady Wakasa wears a filmy over-robe as a veil over her head - perhaps to screen her fair skin from the sunlight, but also intimating to the audience her "veiled", hidden nature. An awed and bewildered Genjûrô is forced to enter the mansion and accept a meal. The long corridor, first dark then gradually lit by lamps, reminds one of the hashigukari in a Nô theater. The meal is served using Genjûrô's own dishes and bowls, and Lady Wakasa extravagantly praises the potter's skill. She tells him he must not fail to advance his art, to realize his remarkable talents to the full. When he asks "How?" the elderly attendant’s immediate, and amazing, reply is, "Marry Lady Wakasa! Take her as your wife this very night!" As Lady Wakasa throws her arms around is neck, Genjûrô protests weakly that he is already married, but then sinks to the floor under the weight and determination of the Lady's passionate embrace.

It is a seduction scene that echoes Japanese folk-traditions regarding fox-women and other supernatural creatures that ensnare men into carnal relations. The marriage is enacted with an exchange of cups, and Lady Wakasa performs a solemn dance with a fan; her movements reminiscent of a Nô actor's and her dead-white face the very image of a Nô mask, Suddenly a deep male voice joins in with a Nô-like chant, and we are told it is the spirit of her father, rejoicing that at last his daughter has found a husband. If there has been any doubt that we are now in the realm of the supernatural, this scene dispels it. In the morning, it is solemn, beautiful, but eerily disturbing to see Lady Wakasa bustling about the bedchamber in a wifely way. "Surely you have not forgotten what we did last night,” she says coquettishly. The supernatural aura of the night before is quite gone - it is morning, and they are husband and wife.

There follows several idyllic scenes of marital bliss: Genjûrô in an onsen bath, attended from above by a fully-dressed Lady Wakasa. (When she slips off her robe and joins him in the bath, the camera slides discreetly away). Genjûrô picnicking on a grassy lawn, chasing Lady Wakasa, who coyly runs, pauses almost long enough to be caught, then runs again, leaving Genjûrô lying panting on the grass. (Again, when the two actually embrace, the camera averts its gaze.) These are lovely, lyrical scenes, light counterweights to the heavy eeriness of the marriage scene from the night before. We feel Lady Wakasa's beauty, rejoice in her evident happiness, and rather envy Genjûrô, who declares at one point "This is heaven (tengoku)!"

But what, in the meantime, has become of Miyagi and her child, whom we, along it seems with Genjûrô, have almost forgotten? Mizoguchi shifts the scene to her, exhausted, with the child strapped to her back, and just enough food to keep them both alive as they struggle to make their way home. They are attacked by starving soldiers who, desperate for the little food Miyagi has, stab her with a spear and make off with it. It is a remarkable scene cinematically, with two "levels" shown simultaneously: as the wounded Miyagi crawls on the ground and then painfully rises to her feet in the foreground, in the background the starving soldiers begin wearily to fight among themselves over the food they have taken from her. It is a combination of two "distance-shots", one medium-, the other far-distanced, superimposed one upon the other. Miyagi is gravely injured but still able to totter along. As the scene ends, we, the audience, are left in doubt as to her survival, an ambiguity which will become crucial to the film's ending.

Now the film turns to the other couple. Tôbei has managed to equip himself with some armor and a spear and we see him crawling through the grass near a battlefield, like an animal in search of its prey. He comes upon a retainer performing kaishaku (assistant at a ritual suicide) for his mortally wounded lord. Attacking from behind without warning, Tôbei easily kills the retainer and steals the lord's severed head. He presents the head to the general in charge of the opposing army, claiming to have made the kill himself. As a result, he is given full armor and command of a band of foot soldiers: he has realized his ambition and become a full-fledged samurai--indeed, a mini-general, through cunning and deceit. (Mizoguchi clearly has even less admiration for the military-man than he has for the artisan-merchant!)

Again, as with Genjûrô and Miyagi, Mizoguchi cuts away at once to show us what has become of the wife O-hama while the husband follows his dreams of glory. We see her wandering by herself and then suddenly set upon by a band of soldiers who capture her, take her to a Buddhist temple, and rape her. The rape-scene is not shown, only heard as the camera focuses on one of O-hama's discarded sandals in the grass outside. After they are finished, the soldiers contemptuously toss her a few coins (a foretaste of what her fate will be). She leaves the temple, whose sanctity has been violated along with her chastity, and we see her from behind (like Miyagi in the earlier parting-scene on the shore). Her body shakes with shame and fury, and she shouts: "Look at me, Tôbei! Are you happy now? Oh, Tôbei you fool!"

And Tôbei is foolishly happy, for we see him riding on horseback though a town, surrounded by his foot soldiers and full of pride in a recent victory. He leads his men into a wine-house cum brothel and begins a drunken lecture on the finer points of strategy. His vanity and vulgarity know no bounds (Another stunning Mizoguchi caricature of the military). In the midst of his boasting, he catches sight of a harsh-voiced prostitute arguing with a customer who has tried to leave without paying. It is, of course, O-hama. She has followed the course he left her to, the course mapped out for her by her rapists - exchanging sex for money. There is a dramatic confrontation in which Tôbei is abashed and ashamed and O-hama bitterly angry and accusing. She pummels him with her fists, and then grabs him; the two of them falling to the ground in a furious, sad embrace, ironically reminiscent of the passionate "fall" of Genjûrô and Lady Wakasa on their wedding-night. The camera, as always, slips away before anything directly sexual is shown.

The film now returns to Genjûrô. He has settled into his comfortable life in the Kutsuki mansion, and we see him making some purchases in a fine shop. But when he asks for them to be delivered to his new address, the shopkeeper shudders, turns aside, and orders him to leave. On his way home, he is stopped by a yamabushi, a Shinto-Buddhist mountain ascetic, who warns him that his face shows the signs of death, that he has somehow fallen into the hands of evil spirits. The ascetic performs a Buddhist rite of exorcism, reciting sutras and inscribing on Genjûrô's skin powerful protective spells in Sanskrit letters. When Genjûrô returns to the mansion, his strained manner arouses the suspicions of Lady Wakasa, who tries to embrace him. She starts back, burned by the spiritual power of the Sanskrit letters. She weeps and rages, as her elderly attendant explains that Wakasa is the daughter of a ruined noble family, who died before ever having known the joys of love. She has returned from the dead to satisfy her longings. Though we may pity her, we surely are meant to share Genjûrô's horror at the thought of his having had carnal relations with a ghost. Also at work is the Buddhist idea of lust as a defiling attachment, condemning self and others to endless cycles of pain. Wakasa is literally an embodiment of unsatisfied lust. Genjûrô grabs a nearby sword (a Buddhist symbol of the wisdom which cuts through attachments) and slashes at the figure of Lady Wakasa, which retreats before him. He loses consciousness (out of panic and horror this time, rather than ecstatic pleasure, as before). When he awakens the next morning, it is not to a scene of comfortable domesticity, as earlier, but to the barren ruins of the Kutsuki mansion. It has been this way, he learns, for decades. This, and the events of the previous night, constitutes his awakening from his vain dreams of luxury and voluptuousness, paralleling Tôbei's encounter with his wife-turned-harlot in the brothel.

It is nighttime when Genjûrô makes his way home. The village is there, his house is there. He enters his house and walks quickly through it. It appears, in this very brief scene, dilapidated and deserted, with no sign of Miyagi. He goes outside, walks around the house, reenters it and lo! there is Miyagi cooking food over the fire. There is a joyful reunion, loving but not sexual. She welcomes him home, serves him food and sake and shows him his little boy fast asleep. At last, exhausted, he falls asleep, and we watch Miyagi continue her wifely work, covering her husband with a warm robe, mending and sewing, until close to dawn. Sometimes she pauses, covered in shadow and lost in thought. Then she works on.

Morning comes and with it the village headman. When Genjûrô calls for Miyagi, the headman says, "Are you dreaming?" and explains that she was killed by a band of samurai. Genjûrô seems unable to take it in, but there is no sign now of Miyagi, or of the pots and dishes and mended garments of the night before. In a wonderfully expressive moment, Mizoguchi has Genjûrô go to the mat where Miyagi had been sitting, and reach out, as if to touch her for a moment. But he touches only air.

The final scenes of the film show a return to normal life for the two brothers. Tôbei throws his armor and spear into the pond, scolded as ever by his tough-minded wife O-hama. It is slightly comic (as are most of Tôbei's scenes) but O-hama reminds Tôbei, and us, of the price she has had to pay for his foolishness. ("Anta wa baka da kara..."). Without a word, he begins to work energetically in the fields.

And Genjûrô? He weeps at Miyagi's graveside, then hears her voice telling him if she can no longer be with him in the flesh, what is important now is that he returns to work, creating beautiful dishes, the sight of which will give her pleasure, too. Our last sight of Genjûrô is of him at his potter's wheel, his wife's place beside him now empty, but only physically. Their little son takes an offering of food to his mother's grave; she seems very near.

The last scene is a reversed repetition of the very first scene in the film: the camera moves away from the grave and the village and out toward the surrounding fields and mountains. We know that a natural order and rhythm has been reestablished: there are no more marauding samurai nearby to rape and kill, Tôbei tills his fields, O-hama cooks lunch for the little community, and Genjûrô makes his pots, no longer threatened by an anguished, lustful ghost but protected by the serene, loving spirit of Miyagi. The new generation represented by the boy, is linked by bonds of love and filial piety to those who came before. Nature surrounds them all, protective and nourishing.

Mizoguchi thus strongly affirms one form of the traditional Japanese family, with the wife/mother at its core. He has shown how various destructive forces, both internal and external, can threaten this vital social institution and central human nexus. Among the former are such vices as greed, ambition, vanity, and lust. A moralist in the best sense, Mizoguchi opposes his male character’s vices with Miyagi's love and fidelity and O-hama's strength and commonsense.

The external force that most threatens the family in the film is, of course, war. It is war that leads to O-hama’s rape and Miyagi's murder. Ordinary soldiers are shown to be almost uniformly brutal; burning villages, stealing food from women and children, raping and murdering. Their leaders are arrogant and (in Tôbei's case, at least) liars, cheats, and boasters. The historical context of this overwhelmingly negative view of war in important: Mizoguchi made his film in the early 1950's, with the memory of the brutality and destructiveness of the Pacific War still fresh in his mind and the minds of his audience. The kind of self-serving beautification of the war which has taken place in the Japan of the 1990's (idealized portraits of Tojo Hideki, the depiction of the Imperial Japanese Army in Indonesia as a liberating force, loved and supported by the native population, etc., etc.) would have been unthinkable in 1950's. People knew too much and remembered too well. A similar phenomenon can be observed in the United States, as right-wingers attempt to justify the Vietnam War, two or three decades after its humiliating (for American) conclusion. And as the threat of war grows stronger and wider in the wake of the September 11 disaster, Mizoguchi's message seems as timely as ever.

For me, Mizoguchi is the most impressive of Japanese directors. An artist in his use of the camera and staging of scenes; a moralist in his essential view of human life and society; a progressive in his hatred of war and fundamental respect for women; a conservative in his cherishing of family and social ties, and in his reverence for the rhythms of everyday life and work in the midst of enduring Nature.

After an interesting and informative question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria were, over drinks and snacks, members of the audience enthusiastically engaged Paul in more informal discussion on some of the finer points of Japanese cinematography.