By Noel Vera

Ugetsu Monogatari
(Tales of Moon and Rain)
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

(Warning: plot details and narrative twists discussed in explicit detail)

KENJI MIZOGUCHI’s Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moon and Rain, 1953) based on a collection of Ueda Akinari short stories of the same name (in particular “The House in the Thicket” and “The Lust of the White Serpent”) – plus a bit of short fiction by Guy de Maupassant (“Decore!”) – is often considered the director’s finest work, the supreme achievement of not just Japanese but world cinema.

Two men – the potter Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) and the farmer Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) – trek to a nearby town to sell the former’s ceramicware, accompanied by their wives: gentle Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) who carries on her back Genjuro’s son Genichi (Ikio Sawamura), and sharp-tongued Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) who berates Tobei for wanting to become a samurai. Problem is, they journey under the shadow of civil war; Shibata Katsuie’s army sweeps the land, and Genjuro hopes to avoid the fighting by crossing Lake Biwa on a small boat.

Mizoguchi shoots the scene in a giant water tank. The thick low waves – more undulations than proper ripples – the surrounding fog banks, the solemn singing (by Ohama who also paddles), the monotonous drumbeat set to the pace of a funeral march are so blatantly artificial they’re unnerving; nothing looks or sounds natural hence nothing feels as if it belongs to our world. When their boat finally pokes out of the fog and bobs its way toward us, the vapors releases their grip reluctantly, moist fingers clinging to the low hull.

Suddenly Ohama stops singing; another boat fades into view, a man lying along its length. “A ghost!” someone exclaims; the man denies it (not that we believe him; he looks more than half dead). He warns of pirates up ahead of their cargo stolen the men killed. As for the women – the women –

The men decide for safety’s sake to leave their women behind; Ohama insists on coming with her husband (“I can take care of him!” she insists). The men sell the pottery make a killing; they split the profits go their own way and –

Here’s the irritating kernel at the heart of this near-perfect masterwork: what does Tobei’s story have to do with the rest of the film? Yes, it’s a variation on Genjuro’s – foolhardy man, in overreaching, abandons his wife – but the tone and look of his narrative is so vastly different you wonder if the split personality Mizoguchi achieved was intentional, with Tobei and Ohama cast in a realist melodrama, Genjuro and Miyagi cast in – something else.

The harsh high-contrast lighting, the spare soundtrack (mournful chant plus that maddeningly slow beat) – even Mizoguchi’s trademark tracking shots serve a different purpose here as Ohama is chased by soldiers and dragged into an abandoned house, less an expression of visual flow and more an implacable witness following the action to its inevitable conclusion.

Pickled plum, I thought. That’s what Tobei is, a palate cleanser for the rich meat to come. Tart fruit fermented in salt and shochu providing sour contrast to the fatty flesh. A sprinkle of black comedy, a generous helping of irony – perhaps the split was intended after all.

Comes the main meal of Genjuro and his pottery. A mysterious rich patron’s sudden interest, an invitation to the mansion of Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo) – we later learn that her family was wiped out in the war, the only survivors being the Lady and her nurse.

Our first sight of the mansion is a broken-down gate swinging forlornly. The potter is led past an overgrown lawn up silent doors, through an unkempt courtyard. Where Ohama’s rape played to mournful chant and slow beat, Genjuro’s arrival is announced by a high fluttering flute and a faster beat, the pace of a palpitating heart (Genjuro’s?). He looks back and in the scene’s first-ever reverse shot suddenly it’s evening and servants are lighting candles in every room (Servants? But weren’t there only two survivors?).

The sequence is so smooth yet swift we’re carried along before we can ask questions – or we intend to ask questions but the breathless beauty of the sequence squashes all skeptical thoughts; Mizoguchi like Lady Wakasa won’t take “No!” for an answer. His long takes, which advanced relentlessly earlier, now glide with divine grace – again like Lady Wakasa there’s something otherworldly about the camera’s effortless sailing.

And here’s the horror of it: at some level Genjuro knows. The rotting gate, the overgrown yard, the empty courtyard plunged into evening – he knows it’s all illusion and plays along; the seduction succeeds so well because Genjuro, perhaps without even knowing (or acknowledging to himself), is a willing collaborator in his own seduction, in his willful forgetting of his wife’s hard fate (speared by hungry soldiers while fighting over her son’s food).

So when Genjuro is brought to his senses and painted with Buddhist prayers it’s with relief and equally palpable grief that he draws a sword and sends the spirits running. He in effect has taken a sword and is slashing his dream to shreds, opting for truth that doesn’t set you free so much as send you down crashing.

And of course, as with some of the best Mizoguchi films, a woman stops the downward spiral and blesses Genjuro with closure. He stumbles into his old hut – Mizoguchi’s camera of course following – past the cold hearth to the other end of the little shack, stumbles back and (emblematic moment!) finds that he stumbled past what he had been looking for all along: a crackling fire, a sleeping child, a loving waiting wife. Another illusion, of course, but this one leaves him with a nugget of something real behind (the child) and he’s at least left in some kind of peace, a state of equilibrium bitterly achieved. Not perhaps the happiest of endings but lovely enough.