Cycling through New England, where I had gotten into the habit of keeping my wallet in a small handlebar bag along with my Sony RX100 camera, I would periodically stop alongside the road to unzip the bag and make sure everything was still there. I had somehow fallen into the obsession that I had left everything behind at the last Dunkin Donuts, that I would lose the camera, my money and my driver’s license 200 miles away from home in some nondescript Massachusetts strip mall. The camera, purchased new in 2012 when it was the first “large sensor compact” would cost $650 dollars to replace – a lot of money for me these days – but it was the wallet that really worried me. How would I get home? I could walk 150 or 200 miles in a few days, and sleep on park benches, but that would be a tall order indeed without food or a shower. I guess I could call my brother mother and have either of them send me a few hundred dollars by Western Union, but how would I identity myself without my driver’s license?
In a capitalist society, we project our essence into inanimate objects, into ambitions, into alienated unreality. How many hours did I work to buy a camera that could easily be lost? Even more, what are any of us without the, mostly false, social identity we’ve build up over the years, an identity that reduces us to social security number, a paycheck, a driver’s license? Eventually we have no reality in and of ourselves. In suburban America, without money and ID, you basically don’t exist. You are an illusion.
Let’s up the stakes a little. Let’s say I lost my wallet in Massachusetts, and walked the 200 miles back to New Jersey – sleeping on park benches, shoplifting dinner from local supermarkets and doing without a shower – only to arrive back home to discover that my house had burned down and everybody I knew was dead. For us Americans, this is a situation so extreme that we barely think of the possibility. For a Syrian, or anybody in the middle of a civil war, it’s all too common. For the Japanese in the 1950s, who were a well organized, educated people with a well-developed civil society and a long tradition of social discipline, but who had just lost a catastrophic war with the United States, the fear of death and dislocation lurked constantly beneath the polite, laboriously constructed surface. Years before the country had sold itself out to an illusion, only to meet up with utter destruction. Unreality was reality. Evil spirits haunted the landscape.
In 1953, only eight years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the veteran Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi released his masterpiece, a film that not only captured the anxieties of post-War Japan, but spoke to the human condition as a whole, a towering work of art fully the equal of anything in western cinema, or, indeed, anything in western high culture. Ugetsu Monogatari, based on the Eighteenth Century book of the same title – which is literally translated as “Tales of Moon and Rain” — and the film widely credited with bringing awareness of Japanese cinema to Western Europe and the United States, is basically five things.
A period piece
A feminist tale of how women suffer because men are idiots
An anti-war film
A brief, lucid introduction to Buddhism
A meditation on artistic creation and alienation
Two married couples, Genjurō and Miyagi, Tōbei and Ohama live along the shore of Lake Biwa in the Ōmi Province in the late 16th century. It’s a chaotic, desperate time of civil war. Bands of marauding samurai sack and loot villages, rape women, and press able bodied men into slave labor. Miyagi, played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who would go onto become one of the first female Japanese directors, and Ohama, played by Mitsuko Mito, are well aware of how vulnerable they are, especially Miyagi, who has a small child. Genjurō and Tōbei, on the other hand, see the war as an opportunity, a foolish delusion in the eyes of Mizoguchi. Unlike Kurosawa, Mizoguchi never even for a second romanticized war. Indeed, Tōbei, who wants to become a Samurai and who might have been treated with some respect by Kurosawa in a film like The Seven Samurai, is portrayed as a clown deserving of all his wife’s contempt. He has no armor. He has no idea how to use a sword or a spear, and even if he did, as Mizoguchi later makes clear, it would still be an ignoble calling.
With Genjurō it’s more complex. A skilled potter and artist in ceramics he can be thought as a stand in not only for Mizoguchi himelf, but for “the artist” in general. After an initial batch of pottery fetches 3 pieces of silver – a significant amount of money for a Japanese peasant in the Sixteenth Century – in a nearby town, he decides to put everything he has into one big score, a much larger, more ambitious project that will make him and Miyagi wealthy. Miyagi’s reservations, while not the contempt Ohama has for Tōbei’s dreams of becoming a samurai, are both powerful and in the end well justified. After consulting a village elder, she warns her husband that the war has made any big project a risky affair. A lifetime’s worth of supplies and hundreds of hours of labor can be destroyed in a few minutes. To alienate that much of yourself into a stock of inanimate objects is a mistake. “As long as you’re by my side I’ll never be unhappy,” she argues. “I don’t want money. I only want to live together happily as a family.” Nevertheless, after Genjurō insists on pressing ahead, Miyaga joins him at his potter’s wheel, and ably assists him in making up a huge batch of pots, dishes, and saki flasks that will bring a significant fortune if only they can get them to market. Together, the two couples set out in a boat across Lake Biwa for the city of Nagahama.
The scene on Lake Biwa, the most celebrated sequence in the film, is a poetic invocation of the idea of leaving home, of becoming unmoored, of entering a new reality. The journey quickly becomes perilous. The war is still raging on all around them. Civil society is progressively breaking down. When the two married couples meet up with a dying man in another boat who warns them that the lake is crawling with pirates who will take their stock of merchandise, then rape and kill the two women, Genjurō takes Miyaga back to the shore and sends her and their young song back to the village. Ohama inists on accompanying the two men to Nagahama, but the image of Miyaga along the side of the lake, calling out to her husband not to resist if they’re waylaid by pirates, frightened at the idea of making her way back home through random bands of freebooting soldiers, is powerful. We realize that she’s been abandoned by her husband, who has left a genuine treasure to pursue fool’s gold in a far off city. We realize that the entire expedition will end in disaster.
The expedition does, of course, end in disaster, but its in the how and the why that Mizoguchi proves himself to be a genuine artist, and not just a hack writing a melodrama. There are no outisde forces that bring Genjurō and Tōbei to ruin. They’re not attacked by samurai or kidnapped by pirates. On the contrary, Genjurō’s pottery is a hit. They not only sell most of their stock in a day, but are given a commission by the beautiful, aristocratic Lady Wakasa, played by the renowned Japanese actress Machiko Kyō, to bring several of their best pieces to the Kutsuki mansion, her clan’s ancestral estate. Genjurō and Tōbei are destroyed, not by the war, but by their own flawed character. After collecting his money, Tōbei, who can finally buy the armor and weapons he has no idea how to use, abandons Ohama to continue to pursue his dream of becoming a samurai. After she’s captured by deserting soldiers, raped, and sold into a brothel, and her husband has a brief moment of martial glory – he engages in fraud but still gets what he wants – we see where the fool’s dreams have brought them both, to humiliation and ruin.
But Tōbei and Ohama have the easier fate. When Genjurō goes out to the Kutsuki mansion to deliver his wares, Lady Wasaka plays upon his artistic vanity, greed, and desire for upward mobility. She seduces him into forgetting about Miyaga and into entering into a fraudulent marriage. If it ended there, Genjurō would simply be another fool who left his loving wife for another woman, but Lady Wasaka is not just another women. In fact, she’s not a woman at all, but rather the ghost of a young girl who was killed before she could fall in love, an evil spirit come back from the dead to lead a foolish but innocent man to his doom. There’s really nothing I can write that would convey the sheer poetic beauty of Genjurō’s awful realization of the trap he has fallen into. Mizoguchi’s use of light and shadow, Masayuki Mori’s and Machiko Kyō’s acting, the skillfully written screenplay that has taken us into a realm where everything and yet nothing seems real, manage to convey a tragedy that not only expresses Genjurō’s flaws as a man, but the horror of war. Lady Wasaka is indeed an evil spirit. Only the intervention of a Buddhist holy man saves Genjurō from being dragged into hell.
Yet Lady Wasaka is also a pitiable, sympathetic character we can all relate to. To die without ever having known love is perhaps the one fate most of us fear the most. It not only expresses the incompleteness of a life lived without ever having known romantic love, but the emptiness of a life never lived at all. After Genjurō, who has projected himself into a stock of merchandise, sold his soul for the idea of possibly becoming a rich man, escapes the Kutsuki Mansion – which we also realize had been built entirely out of his own imagination – and returns home to Miyagi, we begin to realize the awful truth. Unlike Lady Wasaka, Genjurō has known love, genuine love not just infatuation or romantic obsession. “As long as I’m by your side I will never be unhappy,” Miyagi had told him. Together they had a young son. She had been right. There was nothing else in life Genjurō could have possibly wanted. Even though he was only a simple peasant farmer with a sideline in pottery, he had possessed what a wealthy aristocrat had come back from the dead to find, but he chose to throw it all away. He started out in heaven and deliberately sent himself to hell.
If you can watch the final ten minutes of Ugetsu – where Genjurō encounters yet another ghost — without sobbing, you’re probably not human, but it’s more than just good melodrama. There is a shift in perception, subtly conveyed by Mizoguchi’s camerawork, that rescues Genjurō from his damnation. Throughout Ugetsu we have been aware of Genjurō’s and Miyagi’s son, but have not seen anything from his point of view. Indeed, his parents seem to carry him around like a doll, a prop, a burden In the final scene of the film, however, as Genjurō realizes his loss, we suddenly see things through the eyes of their child. The camera pans upward to reveal a panorama of medieval Japanese society. Life goes on. Genjurō’s ambition, his artistic imagination, has brought his family to ruin, but his wife’s love from beyond the grave has rescued their son, and in the end himself, from damnation, from the fate of Lady Wasaka and her clan. Reality has defeated illusion. Genjurō, like Japan itself, has survived the apocalypse.