Tuesday, August 15, 2006


UGETSU ("UGETSU MONOGATARI," 1953, Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yoshikata Yoda screenplay, Matsutaro Kawaguchi adaptation of stories by Akinari Ueda and Maupassant)

Coming home a bit baffled after viewing this rather alien (even alienating) film, I was relieved to open my copy of "The New York Times Guide To The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made" and find that, for all their respect for the film evident in its selection for the book, reviewer Bosley Crowther was similarly shall we say "guarded" in his reaction, commenting on its "strangely obscure, inferential, almost studiedly perplexing quality" that he judged would be "hard for even the most attentive patro to grasp as it goes along" – a vexing, "weird, exotic stew."

The performances are for the most part stagey, with the kind of physical and emotional exaggeration seen in traditional Japanese theatre. The moral lessons seem baldly obvious even in the opening scenes, when two men – brothers, apparently – ignore their sensible wives and, cartoonlike, risk everything in the midst of a brutal civil war, one to grow unnecessarily wealthy by selling his pottery, the other desperate to leave behind his miserable life of poverty by becoming an acclaimed samurai. You know instantly that they are fools, that the women are right, and that it's all going to end badly: in this sense it has the blunt straightforwardness of a morality play, a fable, or one of Bertoldt Brecht's preachier scolds. (Again I cling to Mr Crowther for moral support as I expess qualms about what has become, more than fifty years after the fact, a pretty much universally certified Classic Of The Cinema: remarking on the "averageness of the stories," the central characters "stock" and "the lessons proved banal." Whew.)

One of the film's celebrated strengths is its visual beauty, particularly its sustained sequence shots featuring a lithely mobile camera. I'll willingly accept this as a personal aesthetic blind spot, but must admit I didn't respond to the film's purported beauty the way I do to, say, Tarkovsky's similarly lauded sequence shots or Bresson's sense of composition.

But there are unexpected subtleties. When the potter is seduced by an exotic and wealthy woman in the city where he goes to sell his wares, the intoxication has as much to do with her elaborate praise of his pottery (which we have seen him create in almost slapdash haste, driven not by artistry but by a feverish lust for profit) as her otherworldly beauty (which puts him under a sort of spell the moment she appears). Whether or not this bizarre-looking creature was actually appealing to the film's original audience, the lack of appeal a mondern western audience might find to her unappealingly stylized white face certainly underlines the madness, the irrationality of his sudden attraction to this woman who is not his wife. He's "crazy in love," he's "mad about her," he's "bewitched," seized with a similar compulsive desire that drove his scheme to take advantage of the war's chaos to become wealthy off his pottery, and there's something archetypally true about that: true about infatuation, true about desire, true about adultery.

It's also intriguing to see the way both the character's and the audience's perception of the pottery (and the process of its creation) shifts over the course of the film. From the mercenary profit-driven frenzy of the opening act to the contemplative, mindful activity of the closing, there is a real transformation, part of what lends the film its distinctly spiritual impact – quite apart from the more obviously supernatural elements. Or is this transformation apart from those elements at all? While it may be fired in the kiln of his encounter with what we might think of as the second of the film's "ghost women," isn't it cast on the wheel of the first? Give the film time, and there are eventual subtleties and complexities to be found on reflection, confounding its apparently blatant moralizing. (It's not the morality I object to, by the way, it's the moralizing – just as one can embrace sentiment while despising a story that sentimentalizes.)

I attended this film with a friend who has a lifelong fascination with myth and fairy tale: I imagine a dog-eared copy of Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses Of Enchantment" lying by his bed with his Bible, its underlined pages held together with a rubber band. As "End" appeared on the screen and and I breathed a sigh of relief that I had endured the duration, he breathed something that caught me by surprise: "Wow." UGETSU stirred him, it spoke into his life in what seems to me a clearly spiritual, even uncannily supernatural way. The sequence where the central character is drawn aside for a warning we do not hear, the strange black writing that appears on his back and its effect on his condition, the relief we experience at the outcome and then the deft way that that resolution is re-resolved – these are not only some of the film's most sublime artistic and thematic accomplishments, but also (at least for my friend, and I suspect for many others, and increasingly for me) another source of its undeniable – if elusive and confounding – spiritual effect.

Commentators remark that this film is a particularly clear expression of the director's conversion to Buddhism, so it shouldn't surprise us if its spiritual (and aesthetic) qualities arise from the same sort of mystery and tension of opposites that mark a Zen koan. Bosley Crowther closes his review by remarking that Ugetsu means "pale and mysterious moon after the rain – which is just about as revealing as a great deal else in this film." I find it fascinating that the same film that is critiqued for the banality of the lessons it offers is chided for its obscurity – I would say that Mr Crowther was talking out of both sides of his mouth, except that I had exactly the same experience. And I find it remarkable (and significant) that so confounding a film would also offer such clarity and illumination to my friend.

Isn't that just the way, sometimes?


Available at Videomatica

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