Though Ugetsu is often most often called a ghost story, there are actually two narratives running concurrently throughout.
Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) is a story that rests upon the notion that the follies of mankind could lead to ruination, but it’s within human nature to push onward. Often cited as one of the best films ever made, Ugetsu is based on short stories by acclaimed Japanese writer Akinari Ueda as well as Guy de Maupassant. Best known for a trio of films he made in the ‘50s for which he won prizes at Venice Film Festival three years in a row (including The Life of Oharu and Sansho the Bailiff) Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is the least miserabilist of the triumvirate and most-lauded.
Ugestu gets it central ghost story from Ueda’s 18th century tales, which Mizoguchi admired because they focused on the lives and conditions of common people forced to survive during conflict. From his French source, Mizoguchi pulled a story about a commoner who would do anything to achieve a better station in life, even at the expense of his family.
Though Ugetsu is often most often called a ghost story, there are actually two narratives running concurrently throughout. The first story focuses on Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), a down-on-his-luck potter who begins to turn a profit when the forces taking part in the civil war begin to purchase his wares. Seduced by this new income, Genjuro decides to take to the road to get richer, despite the protestations of his wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka). The second narrative concerns Genjuro’s assistant Tobei (Sakae Ozawa), who sets off to become a samurai, despite having no combat skills. Both of these men are possessed by dreams of transcending their station, and even though their wives beg them to stay, both set out to find glory.
This a lose-lose situation for Genjuro, Tobei and their families. They could fail and come home empty-handed. They could be killed on the road. Even worse, they could remain in their homes and perish if a marauding enemy army decides to pillage. So, the families leave the village in search of a better life. Soon, we arrive at one of the film’s most beloved sequences. The families reach a foggy lake. Genjuro leaves his wife and child behind, setting out with Tobei and his wife, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito). It’s an eerie night and, soon, an empty ship floats out of the gloom. However, rather than be piloted by a ghost, we soon discover a dying man rests inside the craft’s body. The man warns them to turn back, that danger awaits. However, they dismiss his caveats and press on.
Soon, each man will have his own harrowing adventure, one supernatural and the other very much mundane. Though both of the men will suffer, their wives end up suffering more. Mizoguchi’s films often concerned the plight of women in Japan, and even though Tobei and Genjuro are cast into dire situations, Miyagi and Ohama lose their lives and their virtue, respectively. Although the director’s other films deal more directly with the travails of women in feudal Japan, especially Oharu, Ugetsu still contains a sensitive portrayal of its female characters.
What makes Ugetsu so transcendent is the tenderness Mizoguchi imbues throughout his story. After finally returning to this village at the end of the film, Genjuro has a second supernatural experience, one that is bittersweet and devastating. By the time its emotional, quiet climax comes to pass, it is obvious why Ugetsu is considered one of the best films of all time, in any language.