Screenwriters Matsutaro Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda wove together two stories from Akirari Ueda’s best-known work, Tales of Moonlight and Rain (Ugetsu Monogatari, 1776) — “The House in the Thicket” (Asaji ga Yado) and “The Lust of the White Serpent” (Jasei no in) — and 19th-century French writer Guy de Maupassant’s “Décoré!”. The usual Mizoguchi theme — women destroyed by male domination and rapacity — recurs, in a 16th-century (before the Pax Tokugawa) setting.
Two farmers, brothers Genjuro (Mori Masayuki [Rashomon, The Bad Sleep Well]) and Tobei (Ozawa Eitarô )who also make pottery rush a load of pots to market before marauding troops arrive. They are war profiteers, though their wives, Miyaga (Tanaka Kinuyo [Sanchô the Bailiff, The Ballad of Naryama] and Ohama (Mito Mitsuko ) are going to pay steep prices in suffering for their husband’s greed and recklessness.
Plot spoiler alert
Both couples (and the child of ) have to flee the village as the marauding troops arrive, though Genjuro, in particular, is concerned about keeping the kiln fire burning to finish more pots. After the troops have sort of moved on, he sneaks back, finds the fire went out but that the pots are finished.
The men decide to take their wares by boat (they used a cart the first time). In a foggy lake another boat drifts toward theirs. At first they think it is empty, perhaps helmsed by a ghost. But there is a man lying in the bottom of the boat, who begs for water to drink (though in a fresh water lake…). After he receives a cup, he warns his benefactors of pirates who robbed and mortally wounded him.
The men take the women back home and set off again. I’m not sure if both women are raped by the rebel troops. Ohama is gang-raped and Miyagi is run through with a spear after the food she is carrying for her son is stolen by hungry soldiers.
The women are, untypically for Mizoguchi, less the focus than their menfolk. Tobei wants to become a samurai (an officially hereditary caste). While selling pots in the market, Genjuro encounters a veiled aristocratic woman who pretty much buys up his stock. Later her companion (former nurse, I think) guides Genjuro to the mansion, where he is served on his ceramics. Contrary to other versions of the story, he does not craft more stuff while captivated by the charms and high regard for his artistry of Lady Wakasa (Kyô Machiko, the woman in Kurosawa’s “Rashomon“, the movie that introduced Japanese cinema to international audiences).
Pretty much by happenstance, Tobei comes into possession of the head of a general. He claims to have slain the general himself (in fact he killed the general’s killer). His wish for a suit of armor, a horse, and some retainers is granted. Heading home, he is inveigled into stopping at a tea house… where he finds that Miyagi has become a geisha.
Genjuro returns home, greeted by the ghost of his wife, though she seems real to him, just as Lady Wakasa had. That is, he connects with two female ghosts killed by rapacious troops. The son, last seen crying by his mother’s corpse, has survived (is not a ghost).
Like Kobayashi’s later “Kwaidan,” Genjuro’s body is inscribed with protective texts — considerably less of his body, but more effectively.
End of plot spoiler alert
The scene in the lake is the most famous in “Ugetsu,” though I was particularly impressed by the raised and seemingly still wet character inscribed on Genjuro’s body and by the shot from bathing pool down a stream flowing from it.
The very fluid (contrast Ozu’s films) cinematography of the great Miwagawa Kazuo, who had shot “Rashomon,” is justly esteemed, and the film remains impressive, the first of the three Mizoguchi masterpeices set centuries earlier (with Sanchô and Crucified Lovers).
©2016, Stephen O.Murray