Review: Ugetsu monogatari (Ugetsu, 1953)


Ghosts that come in the night, and the daytime, oh my!

Screenplay By: Yoshikata Yoda
Directed By: Kenji Mizoguchi

In the murky haze of indiscriminate countrysides and a city, Japan is dying. It’s dying because of the choices made by its people. They are leaving the country, seeking money, and leaving behind their responsibilities and duties. They are being loyal to themselves, believing that they are owed something by the world. Genjûrô and Tôbee are Japan proper, while their wives are the devastated common folk who suffer because of their actions. Miyagi and Ohama are forced to stand idly by while their husbands throw away everything their families have worked for. The husbands seek fame, power, and wealth, but they do so recklessly and with a zeal that borders on fanatic. They experience their dreams, but the dreams are fleeting, and they produce only death and dismay.

For most of its runtime Ugetsu monogatari is a dour film, a harrowing experience if ever there was one. In the simplest way possible the audience plays witness to two families being torn apart by their own machinations. The supernatural comes into the fray, but in both instances the supernatural is nothing more than a reminder of past deeds. One is positive, the other negative, and both impact the ending of the film. Said ending is very important, mainly because it is startlingly upbeat. As Tôbee works hard at a field and Genjûrô works diligently but patiently on his pottery we see the future of Japan. Hard work and patient care are what will save Japan, not power and a fast buck. The end of Ugetsu monogatari is a spark of hope for Japan, not all was lost after World War II after all.

Kenji Mizoguchi is the man behind the camera for Ugetsu monogatari. This is the first film I’ve seen from him, but he carries quite the reputation into this viewing. Something I had never heard about Mizoguchi-san that I took away from Ugetsu monogatari is that he has a laconic approach to his direction. Ugetsu monogatari is like a lazy river at a water park. There’s plenty of chaos happening in the surrounding areas, or outside the frame, but in the frame things are happening at a more natural pace. Mizoguchi-san doesn’t hurry his film along, he lets his camera capture the events as they unfold without getting in the way. Ugetsu monogatari may be the first film I’ve seen from Mizoguchi-san, but it certainly won’t be my last.

The wake left by Ugetsu monogatari belies the thunderous roar of its message and themes. This is a call to action film, but one that seeks people to be smart in their action. Ugetsu monogatari doesn’t want people running to the streets and restoring Japan to its past glory. The slow and the steady path, that’s what Ugetsu monogatari is hoping the future of Japan will contain. Is the film a prognosticator of the future, I’m not sure about that. What I am sure of is that Ugetsu monogatari is a film that looks great and approaches its themes with a deft hand. Not your standard ghost story, Ugetsu monogatari is the past, the present, and the future of Japan.



Bill Thompson


3 responses to “Review: Ugetsu monogatari (Ugetsu, 1953)

  1. Glad to see you liked this, because Sansho the Bailiff is even better. I hope you seek that film out next.

  2. I went through Mizoguchi phase last year as Sansho the Bailiff is so far my favorite with The Life of Oharu being a very close second as I also enjoyed this one as well.

  3. Antares – Sansho has been in my queue for a long time, I should be getting to it sometime soon.

    Void – This is, I believe, the only Mizoguchi I’ve seen so far, and I look forward to seeking out more.

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