A visual film of quiet, haunting beauty, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is a ghost story of the most chilling variety. It isn’t about the terror ghosts can cause passingly to you, what they can make you feel, and how they can even cause you bodily harm; it’s about what they can make you do, how they can control you, and how you can be made agency-less by your own desires manifested in the world around you. It’s the story of two brothers: Genjuro, who quests after money, and Tobei, who wants fame and honor. When Genjuro goes to the city to sell the pots he makes, he finds himself awash in the glories of monetary success, and when Tobei tags along, he eventually gets lost in the armor of a samurai he kills. It’s a grand tragedy of two men driven by ambition and obsession, a drama of Shakespearean proportions given quiet, breathing life, above all, by pure visual and aural craftsmanship. We look in and it looks back with quiet rage and somber mournfulness. We look in and it makes us wish we hadn’t.
Mizoguchi’s name is somewhat lost to the West today. We have Kurosawa, towering as he does over international cinema with his bombast and his swagger, the kind of genre filmmaker who was obsessed with the American West and made films that followed suit: grand yet personal, but opuses first and foremost. He dealt in fiction and gave us stories of mythic proportions, and for that reason he is compared often to John Ford. And we have Ozu, who gave us the greatest single film of Japanese cinema and perhaps the most achingly human film ever, Tokyo Story, but who was Kurosawa’s opposite at every turn. Where-as Kurosawa was grand and masculine, a filmmaker of action and cause and effect, and of individuals, Ozu was a poetic, elegiac, and spiritual director of people as they existed in relation to each other, and a filmmaker of quiet energy and thought, a filmmaker of the unspoken.
While both were great filmmakers, they succeeded popularly in part because audiences knew what to do with them. This was not so with Mizoguchi, a director who straddled a line between the personal and the grandly mythic. We see this in Ugetsu. It’s a genre film, for one, and it deals openly in history and myth, Kurosawa’s two favorite subjects. And, also like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi is famous visually for his sweeping imagery and his long takes, his favorite technique. This is not Ozu’s forte: Ozu, especially in his later films, gave us static dioramas in which he set up his characters as a community. Yet, unlike Kurosawa, Mizoguchi uses sweeping imagery to connect his characters to their environment, rather than to contrast the two. Kurosawa, who liked individuals, often saw location as useful for setting up the stakes those individuals would play out in the film – it was the individuals that mattered. Mizoguchi, like Ozu, sees not people in the foreground and environs in the back, but a larger, more connected whole universe of dreams and desire where people play out their existences. But while Ozu preferred to train his camera on the world of people as communities rather than individuals, Mizoguchi is more interested in something else beyond people together: their eternal smallness in relation to the inhuman world outside them. He gives us two individuals here, but they are in-separable from their environment, which is why he likes to depict people as small and insignificant in relation to an environment that seems to swallow them up.
Mizoguchi breaks down the barrier between the personal and the grand, rendering people as myths who both fill out Kurosawa’s archetypes and Ozu’s deep personal conflict. If he’s quiet like Ozu, his humans aren’t caught up in their time, as Ozu’s were. Ozu was interested in the intersection of the future and past in his time, essaying deep films about Japan’s present as a tension between them. But Mizoguchi renders them as mythic fables of timeless proportions, invading our dreams to scare us and leave an impression on our desires. He doesn’t strive for sweeping affect or personal emotion, the kinds of things we can appreciate or emote about. In Ugetsu, he shoots for the unconscious, giving us images of haunting mastery that are as personal as Ozu but as timeless as Kurosawa. The most famous, of course, is a trip the two brothers take to the city by boat over a lake, where the director creates a haunted world of mist and foggy morality to rival Dreyer’s work in Vampyr or Laughton’s in The Night of the Hunter. We have people here who are at once small and towering: small because the scene is about an environment which can crush them at any moment and towering because the environment in its very moral decay and inhuman greyness is the two men abstracted. It is a world outside them, but it also reflects their hopes, desires, and dreams staring back at them and ready to destroy them. The scene, and the otherworldly noises which play over it like the lake’s eternal soundtrack, inscribe themselves on the mind and become one with the viewer.
And yet, for all its deeply intimate, piercing fable qualities, this is a film about class and gender, as relevant to contemporary Japanese society as Ozu’s films of the same time. It is ultimately about men who search out success and tell themselves they do so to benefit their wives, neither of whom want any greater success for their husbands than the simple pleasures of their company and their survival together on their own terms. The men tell themselves they do what they do for their wives, and they must keep telling themselves this – thus the image of the female ghost which haunts over the film and beckons Genjuro even as he says he is acting for another woman. He’s so easy to fall for her because he isn’t really out for his wife – his actions are for his own eternal ego, and he’d just as soon fall for her. The film then renders itself as a thorough critique of masculine egotism connected to traditionalist conceptions of “honor” through supposedly “honorable” killing (Tobei’s desires) and greedy capitalism (Genjuro’s). Both ultimately seek to benefit their selves, not their wives, and simply legitimize their actions through their possessive ownership of their wives and their appropriation of benevolent sexism. They assume they know what is best for their wives and act upon it, even if it means severing connections with their wives, destroying their relationships, and ultimately destroying themselves.
But Mizoguchi doesn’t render the themes as Ozu would have: direct and even clinical in their warmth, and explicitly in modern Japan. Instead, Mizoguchi gives them an ethereal, haunting timelessness that approximates not reality but a haunting dream, essaying not the tensions of Japan in the early 1950s, but a timeless tension in male desires and the male quest for power throughout the world and through time. In a heartbreaking shot where Genjuro finally realizes his own myth-making, we see his opulent desires fade out into the myth and fable they always were. Mizoguchi understands the power of such images as eternal reflections of man’s inner self, the bread and butter of horror filmmaking but here rendered as a spooky storybook. If Kurosawa’s films were about story and Ozu’s were about characters, Mizoguchi and Ugetsu are about the very feeling of it all. Like the ghosts that center the film and which call forth its characters to uncertain doom, the film is both extra-human and the pit of man’s humanity. It’s weird to call it horror, in fact. I don’t feel right about it. I feel like the twin armies of youthful B-movie fan-boys and uptight cinephiles will descend on me at once if I do. But it exists in such a perpetual unholy haze of human desperation. It isn’t so much scary as it is haunting. But if so, it’s one of the most haunting visions the cinema has given us. That’s enough for me.