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By Arpad Lukacs • July 21st, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Daiei Film

Original release: March 26th, 1953
Running time: 94 minutes

Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writers: Matsutar? Kawaguchi, Yoshikata Yoda

Cast: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Ky?, Mitsuko Mito, Kinuyo Tanaka, Eitaro Ozawa


I’ve seen a fair number of films from director Kenji Mizoguchi before getting to the one that’s widely considered his best. Ugetsu, or Ugetsu Monogatari, is highlighted by many as the masterpiece that stands at the top of an already distinguished body of work that include A Geisha (1953), Sansho The Bailiff (1954), Sisters Of The Gion (1936) and many others. I decided to see the film without reading about it in advance, all I knew that most critics and Mizoguchi’s fellow filmmakers – amongst them Kaneto Shindo who gave us Children Of Hiroshima – recognised Ugetsu as the director’s best film. So what makes Ugetsu so special?

On the face of it, the film is a jidaigeki that seems to neatly follow the conventions of Japanese period films. We follow the lives of two couples in 16th century rural Japan during war time. As can be expected from Mizoguchi, there’s a strong distinction drawn between the two genders by portraying both husbands in a pro-war state of mind while the wives are far more cautious and reasonable. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is a potter who sees war as a great opportunity to do business and make money, while Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) has an overtly romanticised idea of the samurai and is determined to become a legendary warrior himself. Their wives Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) disapprove of the greed and the war fever and do what they can to hold their men back but all is done in vain.

Tobei is soon off in his search for glory, but a surprising turn of events comes when Genjuro takes his merchandise to a new market place where his pottery draws the attention of the noblewoman Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo) and her female servant. They order several pieces and have Genjuro deliver them to Lady Wakasa’s manor. Watching this sequence was a memorable experience, Mizoguchi allows some sense of oddness to be gradually released as events unfold. I knew something wasn’t quite right but could not put my finger on what it was exactly until later on. As the Lady seduces Genjuro and asks him to marry her, we begin to realise that he’s trapped and something supernatural is at work. What this female demon represents, in a film that shows the effects of war on the general population without ever showing war itself, should be considered.


“The most popular critical interpretation of Ugetsu is that Mizoguchi used old stories to reflect on the war fever that mistakenly passed for patriotism in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, primarily among men … The primary story of Genjuro, his family, and the demon ghost of Lady Wakasa contains a more complex anti-war sentiment. Through this narrative thread, Mizoguchi suggests a connection between male obliviousness to the realities of war and the fatal attraction of samurai legends.” ¹

  • [1] Martha P. Nochimson World On Film: An Introduction (2010), Wiley-Blackwell

While the “fatal attraction of samurai legends” is fairly obvious (but nevertheless a valuable insight) in the Tobei story line, Genjuro’s misadventures into the supernatural can be interpreted in more than one way. I like Martha P. Nochimson’s suggestion above, from her book World On Film, that the supernatural sequence symbolises “male obliviousness to the realities of war”, but to me escapism seemed like an idea that addresses the narrative more directly. While Genjuro is married and has a son, he leaves all of that behind along with the chaos of war in order to indulge himself in a blissful dream. If we think of it this way, we get a male defense mechanism that’s utilised by Genjuro precisely because the gritty reality of war is beginning to get to him. The once war-happy man begins to feel the pain, but he can only delay a belated encounter with the horror he’s running away from.

With Mizoguchi cutting back and forth between other characters and Genjuro, Ugetsu becomes a surreal picture where wishful fantasy and gruesome reality are juxtaposed within the same frame. This makes the film a prime example of what can happen when a gifted director is given complete creative control. It’s a beautiful and thoughtful contemplation on the attitudes in war and their consequences while also giving a remarkable visual insight into the state of mind of the escapee who’s just had a change of heart.


Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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