Witnessing Dreams in Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari
What man would not want Kinuyo Tanaka waiting for him when he came home every day?
In his 1953 classic Ugetsu Monogatari, director Kenji Mizoguchi turned the actress into the ideal wife. It's not that her character, Miyagi, subserviently tends to her husband's every wish and command; there's no time for that in the lawless Sengoku period of the 16th century. Miyagi's attraction lies in the way she forms a tight unit with her husband, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), working alongside him, turning his potter's wheel and glazing his pots. Slight of frame and with her long kimono sleeves forever tied up at her armpits, she is Genjuro's equal in hard-work and creativity. And when it comes to setting priorities straight, she is streets ahead.
Villagers like Genjuro and Miyagi live with the threat that roving bands of warriors will arrive to haul off the men for service in their armies. That's why when Miyagi receives a beautiful new kimono from her husband she is quick to qualify her expression of thanks: "As long as I have you I don't want for anything," she says.
If only he thought the same.
What makes Ugetsu so powerful is that it shows how natural desires - for money, for betterment - can lead to ones undoing. It's a tragedy in the purest sense.
You can't fault Genjuro for wanting to go to the town to sell his pots, or for leaving his wife and child in the relative safety of their village. And when a mysterious princess appears offering to buy a fortune's worth of wares, who could blame him for delivering them to her door?
If you're going to blame him for anything, it should be for not noticing the way the princess' sprawling but dilapidated residence magically regains its former magnificence the moment he enters. If anything that should have warned him that he'd entered a dream, and that a sensual encounter with this siren will come with consequences. But then, the delicacy with which Mizoguchi handles this shift from fact to fancy - a slightly disorienting series of pans and cuts through corridors and rooms - is so deft that even we, the viewers, are fooled by it, too.
Having established Genjuro's idyll with Miyagi, and then sown the seeds for its undoing, Mizoguchi delights in hammering home the consequences. And it is the way he does this that sets Ugetsu apart from most other filmic tragedies. Ugetsu doesn't end with the abandoned Miyagi's murder, or with the plaintiff cries of her baby son, still clinging to her neck as she stumbles to the ground. It ends with a drawn out depiction of Genjuro's realization that his wife has died, and that his own folly was to blame.
For this the director introduces another dream sequence, again so skillfully interlaced with reality as to be almost undetectable. In a single cut Genjuro returns to find his house run-down and empty. He wanders around the back in a puzzled daze before reentering to find things magically repaired to suit his expectations. Miyagi is cooking food; their son is asleep. "Oh, home at last, home at last," he sighs, his sheer relief bursting from every syllable.
Witnesses to his dream, we too are shown just how wonderful things would be if Miyagi really was still alive. And the romantics among us allow a flicker of hope (Perhaps she survived after all!) to spring to life.
But no, the next morning Genjuro wakes to find the house empty, Miyagi's ghost back in the heavens, and himself alone with his son to rue his loss of paradise.
Director :Kenji Mizoguchi
Producer :Masaichi Nagata
Idea :Kyûchi Tsuji
Story :Akinari Ueda
Screenplay :Matsutarô Kawaguchi,Yoshikata Yoda
Cinematography :Kazuo Miyagawa
Production Design :Kisaku Ito
Film Editing :Mitsuzô Miyata
Lyric :Isamu Yoshii
Original Music :Fumio Hayasaka
Sound recordist :Iwao Otani
Assistant Director :Tokuzo Tanaka
Cast :Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyô, Kinuyo Tanaka, Mitsuko Mito, Eitarô Ozawa and others
1953/JAPAN/94min./Black and White/1 : 1.37/Mono/Daiei Studios