Tag Archives: ghost stories

Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu”


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

Kinoshita’s “Yotsuda, the Phantom” (1949)


Kinoshita’s 1949 adaptation (one of very many) of a famous (in Japan) 1825 Kabuki play (by Tsuruya Nanboku), “Yotsuya kaidan,” is available (on Hulu) as “The Yotsuda Phantom” It came out in two parts of 84 and 72 minutes, with the last seven or so minutes of part one repeated (rather than part one being summarized) at the start of part two. Part One is almost as hard on the viewer as it is on the suffering, loyal, and luckless Oiwa (Tanaka Kinuyo).

The film begins with its biggest set piece, a prison breakout in Edo (Tokyo). The only escaped prisoners not captured and then beheaded were Kohei (Sada Keiji), through dumb luck and Gonbei Naosuke (Takizawa Osamu [Fires on the Plain]). The latter had snitched on the plan to the authorities, and is sought by a gang whose leader was among those betrayed. Naosuke might be the Japanese byword for “betrayal”; he makes Iago seem like a loyal friend!

Kohei was besotted by a teahouse waitress, Oiwa, and stole from the till, hoping to be able to afford her (to buy her release from indenturing?). His infatuation was not reciprocated, and while he was in prison she married Iemon Tamiya (Uehara Ken), who had lost his position as a samurai when the storehouse of his master was robbed. I don’t know how he was able to get Oiwa released from the teahouse, since his disgrace occurred seven years before the story…

Iemon seems to drink up more than Oiwa’s umbrella-making earns. She is more than devoted to him, though he does not treat her well even—or especially—after she has a miscarriage (just before the start of the movie).

Naosuke manages to arrange a match for Iemon with the daughter of a rich merchant. Though the town seems small, the father somehow is not aware that Iemon is already married. Naosuke plots to make Iemon single. He wants to show Iemin Oiwa entertaining Kohei, so that Iemon will either slay the lovers or divorce his wife, but Oiwa virtuously repels him. Then Naosuke supplied Iemon with poison, which Iemon is reluctant to use. It is not exactly honorable for a samurai to poison his devoted wife to be free to marry someone with money (and a father who can get him a job).

Oiwa’s death is hideous and Iemon slays Kohei for good measure. Naosuke helps him dump the corpses in a canal (not exactly a raging river that would carry the corpses far…). Though financially set, Iemon is haunted by guilt. Japan is supposed to be the prototype shame culture, but Iemon replaced the shame of being a masterless samurai (ronin) with guilt for having slain a virtuous and loving wife.

The ghosts do not take revenge as onryô do in some other Japanese ghost movies. Iemon imagines Oiwa, and when Oiwa’s sister, the hardier, Osode (also Tanaka Kinuyo)goes to see him wearing the kimono her sister was wearing when Iemon killed her, he flips out.


In part two, Naosuke proceeds with his plans to enrich himself through his hold on Iemon, commits some new crimes, and confesses to (well brags of?) some older ones before he went to prison. There is a closing conflagration.

Kinoshita’s brother-in-law, Kusuda Hiroshi, provided serviceable if not especially memorable studio-bound cinematography.

I haven’t written yet about “Kwaidan,” but have written about two other superior 1950s Japanese ghost story movies: Shindo’s “Onibaba” and “Kuroneko”/The Black Cat.”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray





Music for the Movies: Takemitsu

The 1994 installment of “Music for the Movies” about Tôru Takemitsu’s film music was made by Charlotte Zwerin (who also made the excellent “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser” and was a codirector of “Gimme Shelter”).


In addition to some insightful remarks by Donald Richie, directors Imamura Shohei, Kobayashi Masaki, Ôshima Nagisa, Shinoda Masahiro, and Teshigahara Hiroshi each marvels at how Takemitsu’s sound enhanced their films. The film clips made the Japanese (or at least Japanese cinema) look far more morbid (in general and death-obsessed in particular) than Paul Shrader’s selections from Mishima’s life and fiction (scored by Phillip Glass).

Takemitsu (1930[-96]) said onscreen that he would have liked to score comedies, but was recurrently recruited to score movies about murder, suicide, and other dark subjects (Harakiri, Kwaidan, Woman in the Dunes, Empire of Passion, etc.) I learned that the one film in which Takemitsu did not get his own way is in Kurosawa’s last (and, I think, greatest) masterpiece, “Ran” (1986). Takemitsu speaks with some distaste of the “Mahlerian” (more specifically “Titan” symphony) soundscape Kurosawa demanded. In general, Taksmitsu maintained: “I write music by placing objects in my musical garden” and he considered his work on movies as being as much sound design as “composed” music. The documentary shows some of the exotic instruments of his sound engineering.

Takemitsu’s music often enhances errieness. He says it is “all top” (i.e., not built on a bass line, especially not employing timpani, which he despises). Olivier Messiaen has been a longtime influence and personal friend and Takemitsu famously despises music that is “stifled by formulas and calculations” and wants his music to be able to breathe rather than being strictly planned (John Cage was another influence). But for most of the hundred films he scored, he sought to “express what the director feels himself. I try to extend his feelings with my music.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Shindô’s Other Beautifully Filmed Ghost Story: “The Black Cat”

Shindô Kaneto’s 1968 ghost/vampire movie “Kuronekô” (Black Cat, or “Yabu no naka no kuronekô,” “Black cat from the grove”) is, frame-by-frame (excepting those showing corpses?( quite beautiful. And the story is at least in part romantic.

It definitely does not begin that way! Fourteen or fifteen hungry and thirsty soldiers (bandits or ronin, if the two categories can be distinguished) are foraging, drink from an irrigation channel, burst into a hut, grab all the food, gang rape the two women, then leave them in a very photogenically burning hut. (It falls around them, leaving their bodies oddly uncharred and with no burnt debris on them.)

Later, viewers learn that the women are the mother (Otoa Nobuko, wife of the director) and the wife, Sige (Taichi Kiwako) of a young farmer who was forcibly conscripted, and is the sole survivor of a battle in the north (a glorious victory…).

The onryo, ghosts of women, have been seeking late-night accompaniment through a bamboo grove, where they get the samurais (one at a time) who have provided protection drunk. Then the younger one beds them and bites their necks before the sexual deed is done.



The god of evil has permitted them to resume their bodily form to slay samurais and drink their blood. This is going well for them until the son/husband (Nakamura Kichiemon, who would star in Shinoda’s “Double Suicide” the next year) returns, is raised to high rank as Gintoki of the Grove (his battle name, before that, before he appears onscreen, he was Hachi—the same name as the returned reluctant warrior in “Onibaba,” btw), and charged by the very hirsute and very arrogant Samurai leader (daimyo) Raiko (Satô Kei) with slaying the ghosts.

The women’s usual scenario for the entrapment and slaying unfolds, but the vengeful ghosts cannot bring themselves to slay Hachi, and send back alive before dawn, every night for a week.


The titular black cat was a kitten when Hachi was dragooned, a witness to the pillage, rape, and murder, and seems to be another form of the mother, though I think there is one scene in which the cat and both women are present. The cat is heard en route (to the house of the ghosts or, inside it, en route to death) by several of the samurais.

I’m not quite sure whether Shindô shares the view of Hachis wife or his mother about whether he has become a soulless victimizer. It doesn’t seem to be that his war experiences have killed his soul or that he cares very much about the gains in material status won by his success at arms (which astonished him more than it did anyone else).

Together with “Onibaba,” “Kuronekô” shows a view that poor women are justified in feeding (literally in the case of “Kuroenkô”) on samurai in beautifully photographed rural locations (Shindô was a great admirer of Mizoguchi, who had been Shindô’s mentor during the 1930s and 40s, and Shinodô’s ghost stories have something of the look of “Sansho, the Bailiff” and “Ugetsu”). As with some movies by Kinoshita, Kobayashi, and Kurosawa, the musical score (by Hayashi Kijaru) is nowhere as impressive as the cinematography (herein by Kuroda Kiyomi, whose work won the Mainichi award, as did Otowa’s acting).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

There is a Criterion blu-ray of this movie, which also streams on Hulu.