Ugetsu

Ugetsu ★★★★★

The thing about UGETSU is that Lady Wakasa's spell never wears off. Long after the credits have rolled, you're still thinking about her painted, ghost-like face, that chilling astral beauty, and what her presence might mean in a story haunted by the psychology and suffering of women. The scariest realization about Wakasa is also the most human: the dead not only have feelings, they echo the desperation of the living through a timeless feedback loop. This suggests a parallel world of spirits stuck in limbo, where the dead foreshadow the fate of the living, and the living end up being destroyed by the fate of the dead. Applied to the story, this simply means there's a never-ending cycle of dead Japanese women forever haunting the living ambitions and restless dreams of their misguided, often selfish husbands. Because we're in a Mizoguchi picture, we know women will endure harsh struggles and needless suffering at the hands of vain, stupid, and venal men. Something new, however, not attempted in previous work, is we now get to experience these thematic obsessions in the context of a spiritual horror film, and boy does it come together as the chilling, aching masterstoke I've been waiting for.

The ghosts in this sublimely sad story are strange and intense but not exactly scary. Sato rightly calls them "more pitiful than terrifying." They're female victims to the ambitions of men and the cruelty of a 16th century civil war, and each of them has their own story of wartime suffering that keeps them stuck between worlds real and unreal. Part of the grace and eeriness of the film is how seamless the transitions are between the real world of violence and the ghostly world of ephemeral pleasures. There's an escapist element where characters flee reality into fantasy, deserting the brutality of feudalism while hoping to rebuild anew, similar to those children who used their imagination to escape the horrors of war in IVAN'S CHILDHOOD, PAN'S LABYRINTH or FANNY AND ALEXANDER. The troubling aspect here is that while men escape into dreamy fairytale worlds of fame and profiteering, it is the women who are unspared by the horrific realities of war, and who ultimately get sacrificed on the altar of men's appetites. 

In the context of a spiritual horror film, Mizoguchi's life-long passion for depicting women in oppressive social relations, and the worthless, humiliated men who vie after them, takes on its most beguiling form. Equal parts lyrical and narrative, UGETSU uses a Noh-inspired framing device to create a world filled with terror, pathos and aching beauty. Scenes melt into one another with dream-like elegance. Mystical forces cast an aura on every shot, leveraging the fog and its theatrical form to release its ghosts. In Noh theater, ghosts are often used as an omen for predicting the fate of the living. Ghosts will return to the earth with grudges, passions or simply a desire to protect the living. Here we get a subtle mixture of the three. 

In Mizoguchi's ethereal world, it is important to note that all ghosts are female. Some are lonely and loveless and never lived long enough to experience romance. Others move with tragic unrest, returning only to care for and protect the people they love. Other more malevolent spirits press upon the earthen banks with a nervous chill, sounding like distant screams against a foreboding backdrop of weird and creepy noises (that biwa music inside the Kuchiki mansion totally haaaaaauuunts). There's a harrowing exorcism sequence —the best in the entire film—in which a perceived demon turns out to be a crushed victim of male violence. When this prayer is uttered, both on the tattooed skin of a man, and through the confession of a pale woman, we suddenly understand the tragic, eternal force behind the ghost story we've been watching. Women have been endlessly murdered for the errors of men, reduced to invisible night creatures who come back to haunt, disturb and hopefully quell the greed of men into paths of reform. 

Uryu Tadao says, "One cannot exorcise the demon within a woman without showing how a suffering man develops as a human being." Applied to UGETSU, one man's idiotic desire for fame and samurai glory causes his wife to be gang-raped by a group of soldiers. His dreamy elevation means her earthly desecration. When he "comes home" (like the wayward, returning prodigal he is) and realizes the whore she's become, he's crushed with regret and humiliation, causing the spirit of reform to lead him back to a simple peasant life. Another man adds his own lust for wealth and fortune to the mix. He abandons his wife in the pursuit of capitalism, and as a result unknowingly feeds her to a pack of murderous clansman. Different from the other fool, what triggers this man "coming home” and leaving the realm of fantasy is based not on an earthen female touch, but a ghostly one. His reform is a matter of being frightened by a dead woman. Through her, he sees the stupidity of his actions as having real, devastating consequences. In both cases, a woman's demons have led to "a suffering man develop[ing] as a human being."

Can UGETSU ultimately be classified as a feminist film given all this female grief, death, and ghostly transference? I think it comes back to how you interpret Lady Wakasa's seductive spell. Her presence sets in motion a pattern of women returning to the world despite the evils and violence of men. Women don't actually die in this film. Men can't kill them. These women resurrect. They reappear. They possibly even reform shitty men who are doomed by their own choices, and who are powerless to resist their charms. 

The sexual rapture Wakasa excites in Genjurō, for example, could be seen as an attack against machismo, since shortly after their uncanny tryst he gives up on his whole jocky thirst for capitalism and returns home to be with his wife and son, where he should've been all along. 

In Wakasa we see another ghost, Miyagi. Despite her husband's stupidity and menace to their son, Miyagi assumes the masculine role of guardian and protector, at the same time the feminine role of a gentle, loving mother. She's more of a man than her husband ever was in life, but she tarries behind to wait for him while he works to reform and exorcise his demons. Mercy, not justice, is her response to his folly. Her absence, paradoxically, will feel like fierce karmic justice when he learns of her fate. In a climax for the ages, the camera quite literally becomes Miyagi's lingering presence that protectively watches over her son and husband. It's a profoundly moving image of the dead caring for their own. A gesture so loving yet tragic to the husband who awakes in a ruined home, bereft of her presence. There's a small moment when Genjurō imagines he's escaped the idiocy of his money-lusting mischief, but when reality kicks in, it comes with the force of having been haunted all over again, just like he was with Wakasa. 

Wakasa's spell never wears off perhaps because she reminds the viewer that male fantasies are impossible to sustain, especially when women everywhere are at risk, at peril, marginalized, vandalized, beaten, raped and murdered, and routinely subjugated to masculine stories where men take the driver's seat and women simply get ghosted in the rearer view mirror. That's a spell that's hard to shake. A wake up call that feels about as gloomy as a deserted home without a woman's faithful touch. Women may appear as nothing but apparitions in this stunningly morose tale, but they're visual absence lingers in the mind far longer than the presence of the men. They might appear to be treated lesser because of the exquisite suffering they have to bear, but like Oharu, their suffering crowns them with a level of endurance and god-like resilience that makes them sacred. 

UGESTU is ultimately a story about sacred ghosts, and I don't think I'll ever shake the power or simplicity of that mysterious image.

Mizoguchi Ranked

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