Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
There is a line in the beginning of Ugetsu which resonates rather profoundly in 2009 although the film was released in 1953 and takes place in 16th century Japan: “Quick money made in chaotic times never lasts”. In an age of subprime mortgages, billion dollar Ponzi schemes, and worldwide economic strife the words intoned by a small village's chief are more than relevant. The maddening pursuit of money has a tendency to turn inwards on itself, and where once a few thousand may have sufficed, now millions are unable to satiate. Where there is will and desire there is a distinct ability to overturn reason. Even if a person has the instinctive knowledge to know that revenue cannot be equated with happiness or satisfaction, the addictive quality of earnings is a dreadfully powerful force, one which can capsize even the most sound advice in favor of potential affluence. Ugetsu is a lesson on the corruptive forces of quick, easy material gains and what is forsaken in their pursuit.
Ugetsu, which is based on a series of nine stories written by Ueda Akinari in the late 18th century, reminded me of a similar sort of fictional tale that took place on the other side of the world during the 19th century: Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. I could not help but think of Wemmick's advice to young Pip in regards to the absolute necessity of “portable property” in scenes where main characters Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) are transporting Genjuro's collection of pottery to the nearby towns. After being run out of their village by a belligerent faction of warriors (the country is engaged in civil war), the two, their wives, Miyagi (Machiko Kyo) is Genjuro's and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) is Tobei's, and Genjuro and Miyagi's son flee towards the nearby city of Nagahama by boat. Despite the madness and threat of death, Genjuro insists on salvaging his huge supply of pottery which he still plans to sell in Nagahama. His fiscal dehydration grows the more he drinks of its intoxicating cup, and upon arriving in Nagahama, after leaving his wife and child along the shore (the group is warned of pirates along the lake, and he decides it's not safe for them), he finds his wares popular among the town's people. Among those who seek his distinguished crafts is a mysterious woman and her nurse. As Tobei flees to achieve his goal of becoming a samurai, Genjuro is invited to a decrepit and haunting mansion where the woman, who is revealed to be Lady Wasaka (Machiko Kyo), the last of a noble family, lives in relative seclusion. The respective stories of Tobei, Genjuro, and Ohama begin to spiral desperately out of control. Ohama, abandoned by her crazed husband and left to wander, is raped by soldiers and later turns to prostitution as a means of making a living. Tobei becomes a respected officer in the army, but is stunned when he meets his wife again and sees the state to which she has fallen into. Genjuro's story is annihilating. He discovers that Lady Wasaka is a spirit, a temptress, who wishes for him to join her in eternal union. He flees her and, believing that he has come to his senses, returns to his village where he finds his wife and son alive and in one peace; thrilled to see him home safe. He falls into a sake-induced sleep and is awoken by the village chief. Looking about for his wife the chief reveals that she has died some time ago. This final apparition has destroyed his madness but in doing so have also destroyed him as well. Both he and Tobei renounce their delirium and return to their former back breaking labors. The film is marked by an overwhelming feeling of lessons learned through great tragedy.
In Great Expectations Pip, after the identity of his benefactor is revealed and he finds said person to be quite below his 'expectations', is eventually deprived of his riches and easy lifestyle of debt and high society and forced, not quite unhappily, to return to the simpler ways of his childhood. It is largely about appreciating what is of real value, which is often intangible. As goes Richie Rich (remember that one), so to does Ugetsu show that the promise and eventual payment of capital never entirely satisfies a longing for something more. Often times this appetence is concealed by a greater acquisition of wealth, but it never entirely goes away. The film exposes the iniquity of all those who, in pursuit of a ghostly vision of prosperity, debase their loved ones and abandon everything they have worked to achieve. In that respect the film is almost comic. However, the stirring sequences towards the end of the film depicting the various characters coming to grips with their reality hamper this black humor. Along the way, unlike Pip, they didn't develop any great disdain for poverty, but rather tried hard to outrun or forget their past and imagine themselves as having been born into lives of fame and riches. They are crushed by their inability to escape and, rather than continue fighting, surrender to its ruthlessness. The effect is quite sobering, like kicking an addiction, but the end result is a clarity which they would not have otherwise been able to achieve. Despite being dead the film's closing monologue by the spirit of Genjuro's wife suggests that she is happy that Genjuro has come to his senses, although she only wishes she could be there to share this newfound peace with him. “Thus is the way of the world,” her phantom voice proclaims. When coping with painful reality, especially when it comes at a great monetary, psychological or physical loss, this outlook is perhaps the only one that makes sense.