The Collegian
Monday, November 28, 2022

Cinema in Retrospect: 'Ugetsu'

<p>Graphic by Lucy Stefani</p>

Graphic by Lucy Stefani

Editor's note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.  

The 1953 Japanese Kaidan film, "Ugetsu," is one of director Kenji Mizoguchi’s most chilling visions. Through it, he paints a tainted portrait of the past, colored especially by its explorations of the strife and destruction inherent to patriarchy. Although the film is nested within conventional Kaidan (Japanese ghost story) aesthetics, its most haunting layers reside in its thematic explorations. Its floating camera and droning ambiance synthesize a poltergeist of eerie timelessness. At its edges, it even seems to phase through the scaffoldings of social structures and gaze into a stark beyond.

Narratively, it etches out a tale of two lower-class families’ attempts to make ends meet during an ongoing war. Despite, or rather because of the surrounding violence of battle, the two families’ patriarchs — Genjuro and his brother-in-law Tobei — realize that they can use the vacuum of war to their benefit. Spurred on by their recent successes in the market wherein they sold their family-made pottery to turn a hefty profit, the two become dead set on making and selling one final batch of ceramics while the wartime prices persist. They convert all their families’ labor into the pottery’s production — opting to endure whatever losses are necessary so as not to hinder their operation. 

Their pecuniary premonitions, however, fail to manifest as they had hoped. The sprawling war catches up to them and, in a final act of pottery preservation, the two are forced to splinter off from their families. Genjuro and Tobei make it to the market — where they indeed find the profits they had anticipated — but in doing so are separated irreparably from their families.

Genjuro’s wife, Miyagi, and his son, Genichi, are left stranded back home. With their family unit suddenly devoid of the paternal breadwinner around whom it was constructed, the mother and son become rendered defenseless. Miyagi was socialized to be a domestic caretaker. She was taught to leave "serious" martial affairs to the men of the world. Therefore, when the marauding tide of war inevitably crashed back into her, she was ill-equipped but to yield to its current: either to be spared by chance or dragged down into a watery grave. A bandit’s blade sends her to the latter. Miyagi was a human — an agent with independent whims and desires — but in the cracked light of patriarchy, she was reduced to nothing more than a shadow. Despite her pleading cries, despite her infant child, despite her life, the burning furnace of patriarchy immolates her all the same.

Elsewhere, Tobei’s wife, Ohama, meets her own gruesome fate. Wanting to stay near her husband, she sets out to intercept him at the market. Her husband’s incessant desire to become a samurai, however, shatters their reunion. Compared to his current stagnation in the dredges of the agrarian peasantry, the rank of a samurai would grant him the respect of and authority over others. 

Intoxicated by this vision, Tobei concentrates all his faculties on its realization, blinding himself to the world around him in the process. He debases himself in front of daimyos and shills out on swords and suits of armor. He hits his lucky break, though, when he chances upon the severed head of an enemy general, which, after presenting it to a local daimyo, earns him his coveted status. He is no longer the exploited producer for a faceless ruling body; instead, he has become that very body corporealized.

The single-mindedness of his obsession, however, severs him from Ohama. One day, when Tobei runs off to chase down a new set of armor, she attempts to follow in pursuit. She loses track of him in the city’s shifting sands and winds up blown away to the city limits. There, she is kidnapped and assaulted by a team of soldiers. When she appears next in the film, it is under a different visage altogether. 

Years later, on the night of his promotion, Tobei decides to take his men out on the town to visit a brothel and flex his newfound power. A brothel, it turns out, headed by Ohama. She reveals that after she was assaulted and left in the countryside, she had no option but to turn to prostitution, which after years of work saw her become a top earner. Within this juncture, both parties are embodiments of a kind of success. 

Vicissitudes aside, Ohama persisted, and Tobei likewise made something out of his life. Yet, there remains a clear coloring to their respective outcomes. Tobei’s elevation carries both monetary and hierarchical tidings whereas Ohama’s is limited to monetary. This is to say that, in the terms of the film, the limits of masculine social mobility are inherently wider than those of the feminine  —  both can trend upwards, but the peaks afforded to them are incongruous. Additionally, the fact remains that the positions these two find themselves in are manifestations of patriarchal imagining. Tobei wants to become a samurai because that is what he has been socialized to think is the ideal form of masculine achievement. Ohama enters the sex industry because that is what she has been socialized she must do after she has been slighted in the ways she has. 

The dream that Tobei abandoned his family and community for was not so much a natural one as an incepted one; he emulated samurai anti-social behaviors because there was an enforced assumption that such figures are righteous in their dominance. The handicap of patriarchy is synonymous with its lack of representation.

Throughout this, Genjuro was ensnared elsewhere with possessive dreams of his own. Although nuanced, they depicted Genjuro’s affairs with a ghost woman. Entranced by her beauty, he staved off convictions of returning to his family until too late. By the time he broke the spell and made it home, his wife had already died, and his son had grown up. In their place, an invisible absence takes hold of the film. The spirits of loss push the camera out of the now vacant home, to Miyagi’s grave, then away into the sky and hovering for a final moment on the image of crop fields being worked. Patriarchy has scarred this world. Its blood has united with the capillaries of nature, yet its victims’ presences remain.

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Contact columnist Henry Skalbeck at henry.skalbeck@richmond.edu.

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