UGETSU (Ugetsu monogatari) (Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain)

(director: Kenji Mizoguchi; screenwriters: Matsutano Kawaguchi/Yoshikata Toda/based on Short Stories by Akinari Ueda; cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa; editor: Mitsuzô Miyata; music: Ichiro Saito; cast: Masayuki Mori (Genjuro), Saka Ozawa (Tobei), Machiko Kyo (Lady Wakasa), Mitsuko Mito (Ohama), Kinuyo Tanaka (Miyagi), Ikio Sawamura (Genichi); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Masaichi Nagata; The Criterion Collection; 1953-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)

It lyrically fuses together the real and the supernatural worlds into a satisfying allegory, where both worlds seem to exist side by side.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s based on two 16th-century ghost stories by the 18th-century writer Akinari Ueda, considered by many as the Japanese Maupassant. It’s one of the few early Japanese films to be imported to America in the 1950s (Rashomon arrived a little sooner), where it received great acclaim. In English the title can be translated as Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain. It’s a stunningly beautiful film that establishes an unusual dreamlike eerie atmosphere in its black-and-white photography, skillfully evokes the supernatural and plays as a moralistic fable (dishing out simple moral lessons that sometimes it’s not good to be ambitious and give up what you already have to make you happy but are too self-absorbed to know). Men are shown as selfish creatures, while women are depicted as the more gentle, nobler gender.

Two married neighbors, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) and Tobei (Saka Ozawa), live in a poor rural 16th-century village, where Genjuro is a master potter but feels disrespected because he’s impoverished and can hardly feed his loving wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their young son. Tobei is a peasant farmer who yearns to be a samurai and strives to get enough money to buy armor, and unrealistically ignores the fact he has no military training. His loving wife Ohama (Saka Ozawa) fears he will do something stupid, such as join one of the rival armies fighting in the civil war raging, and pleads with the more stable Genjuro to look after him.

The friends go into town and sell their pottery wares for a hugh profit, as the war caused a shortage in products (could be interpreted as a sly comment on war profiteering!). Encouraged by this, they make more pottery but their village is overtaken by marauding soldiers who ransack it and take eligible men by force to join their army. The foursome, after taking desperate measures to save their pottery, go by boat to the big city of Ozimo. On the lake they meet a lone boatman who is severely wounded and warns them of pirates before he succumbs. Miyagi returns to their village to take care of their child, as the men sell their wares in town. Ohama accompanies the men, but greed overtakes Tobei and when he gets enough money he runs away to become a samurai. When Ohama returns to the village alone, she’s gang raped by bandits and feels she’s a fallen woman and hereafter earns money as a courtesan. Meanwhile, Genjuro falls in love with a ghost, the alluring Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo), who buys pottery at the market and asks him to deliver it to the Kutsuki mansion. Once there, he’s captivated by her beauty and can’t get over his new sensual feelings. Things sour when he finally realizes she’s not real but only a spirit, but before he can return to his village bandits rob him of everything. When he returns, he finds out his wife was killed by bandits and his son is being raised by those in the village. Tobei becomes a samurai after he retrieves the head of a great warrior slain by another and returns it to the rival feudal chieftain. Learning of his wife’s disgrace upon his surprise return where he expected to wow his wife with his success, Tobei throws away his sword and repents that his blind ambition caused such harm to his wife.

The absorbing film is a sublime tale about the machinations of the human soul. It lyrically fuses together the real and the supernatural worlds into a satisfying allegory, where both worlds seem to exist side by side. The use of long shots and a graceful photographing of the subjects through an unobtrusive camera, all add to the splendid ethereal settings. Though it’s not without some distractions, as it becomes heavy going in certain places.