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Monday, December 5, 2011

Ugetsu (1953) Historical Drama

Ugetsu (1953) - Original Title "Ugetsu monogatari" won the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival and is considered a masterpiece of the "Golden Age" of Japanese film. It is a story set in the 16th Century when war is coming to the Lake Biwa area and the main characters must struggle with not only the danger of coming armies but with the personal questions of what is a good life. The story follows two families from a small village at the edge of the coming battle. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and child Genichi (Ichisaburo Sawamura), and his friend Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) and his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito). Genjuro is a clay pottery maker who because of the coming conflict has been fortunate to sell his wears to the nearby aristocrat. He is very poor and sees this conflict as a real way to pull he and his family out of their poverty. Greedy is more descriptive of his actions. He made the one score and is willing to do almost anything to make an even bigger sale before the war reaches his village. His friend Tobei tries in vain to become a soldier by begging a samurai for the chance, he is laughed at and told he must have armor and a spear if he is to be a warrior. Poor also he is looking for a way out of the tiny village and to find honor and importance in the eyes of others.
The wives are the counter to the men, they want happy lives with enough to eat and personal safety. Ohama tells Tobei he should not be running off but staying behind to be with her. He is determined that the way out of poverty is through soldiering and if she must wait for him so be it. He will make their lives better through his actions. Miyagi also works on her husband, as he sits looking at the silver from his first sale and plans how he can increase his pottery production to make the next larger sale, she reminds him that war is coming and instead he should be preparing a way to keep them all safe. He can not hear her though, in his mind a lot more money from another sale would be the best way to fend for his family. The story winds its way to the realizations that the men need to make to bring the families into harmony but not without first facing an incredible amount of struggle.
Genjuro and Tobei work throwing pots for days on end and manage to get a large amount to sell at the next city over. Even though the kiln process was interrupted when soldiers raid the village they sneak back to find the process complete. It is lucky they even got out of the village during the raid, so worried about keeping the kiln heat up for the correct amount of time made it so they were almost captured and sent off to work camps. Even after this close call the desire for wealth drives the men to take their goods and their families onto Lake Biwa in a dangerous journey to the city. Scared by the threat of pirates Genjuro leaves his wife and child on the shore to make their way back to the village while the remaining three continue on.
This is where the journeys divide with Miyagi and Genichi left to fend for themselves. They must take a dangerous trail back to their village avoiding soldiers along the way. She hears the rape of the women who are caught and must hide and skulk to avoid that fate. The other three manage to reach the city and are very successful in selling. When Tobei has enough money he leaves Ohama and Genjuro when he sees a general pass by. He immediately buys armor and weapons so he can make his name as a soldier. Ohama laments his leaving and looks for him but can not find him. Some soldiers capture her and take her into a house to be raped. It is implied and the last soldier to leave her crying on the floor throws coins at her and is gone. She laments her fool husband who has brought this pain down on her with his absence.
Genjuro alone selling his goods is asked by a mysterious wealthy woman to deliver a large quantity of his wears to her mansion. He of course sees this as a great profit and gladly agrees. Little does he know his fate is one of enchantment by the dead ghost of the mansion's hostess Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo). She puts a spell on him and he gladly loves her and spends his days holding her in his arms. This ghost aspect is a fascinating twist. It is broken only after a Buddhist Monk happens upon Genjuro in town and sees her is cursed. The final confrontation where Genjuro comes clean to Lady Wakasa about his wife and child is a dark and serious scene that resonates his anguish and her strong desire to keep him. When the spell is broken and he wakes we see he is sleeping at the ruins of the mansion long since burned down. It is a lesson for our lead character about that blind greed he was so in favor of and how only misfortune comes from such pursuits. He is penniless and has to make his way back home but at least he has his life.
Tobei and Ohara are an even sadder tale, yes Tobei find fame and fortune. Taking advantage of a situation he finds favor and is rewarded handsomely. So we find him traveling back towards home with men and horses a famous warrior. He is really full of himself and knows he will impress his wife when he gets home. Stopping at a village on the way he and his men head into the local whorehouse for a night of drinking and story telling. As he decides which woman to buy for the night his heart is broken. His lovely wife Ohama is a prominent lady in the establishment. The two have a sad confrontation where Tobei realizes instead of chasing fame he should have been caring for her. Lesson learned again by the man in the relationship.
The final twist I will not spoil but it is a hard lesson for Genjuro when he returns to his small shop to start again. His life completely changed by the events he set in motion through greedy ambition he is a changed man. Now dedicated to his artistry with clay he has learned his lesson and accepts the good in the life he has instead being unsatisfied.
This is an excellent film with a firm message that is universal. Acceptance and acknowledgement of what is good in your life makes living more fulfilling. This writer does struggle though with the idea that a very poor person should accept their fate and not push for a wealthier life. Granted the blind ambition of the characters in this film was a negative feature. They ignored all the coming danger in the pursuit of wealth never once questioning the wisdom of their actions. Still ambition to better yourself can be balanced with thoughtful planning to change your station in life. This excellent film is most certainly recommended
Rating (8.8) 5.0 and up are recommended

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