Andrew Sarris (essay date 1973)
SOURCE : "Ugetsu: A Meditation on Mizoguchi," in Favorite Movies: Critics' Choice, edited by Philip Nobile, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1973, pp. 61-9.
[In the following essay, explains why Mizoguchi's Ugetsu is one of his favorite films, noting the continuing mystery and inaccessibility of Mizoguchi's work.]
When I was asked to contribute to [Favorite Movies: Critics' Choices], I had two options: I could have said yes or I could have said no. If I had said no, that would have been the end of the affair. My integrity, my scruples, my sanctity, my aversion to the hysteria of hyperbole would have remained inviolate. I could then scoff at colleagues who participated in such blatantly promotional enterprises as a "favorite film anthology." Having said yes, however, I would seem to be morally obligated to play by the rules of the game. And these rules do not allow setting one's self up as a paragon of critical virtue or as a being of supreme fastidiousness. In this, as in many other matters, a simple yes or no will suffice. Nonetheless, I am willing to bet that at least one contributor to this anthology will take the opportunity to demean the others. In sports parlance that would be called a cheap shot, since no one is more vulnerable than a critic flushed with enthusiasm. An d especially a film critic. Indeed, mere superciliousness still masquerades as profundity in the culturally insecure realm of cinema. An d so I say in advance to the nitpickers among us: Humbug! Play the game as it is supposed to be played, or go stand on the sideline with the other kibitzers.
But as much as my participation in this anthology obliges me to accept its premises, I must make it clear at the outset that in my estimation, there is not a single film or a single director that towers over the rest. I have never been a desert-island man in the sense that I could make up a list of ten or a hundred or even a thousand films that could content me for the rest of my life. I need the constant challenge of rediscovery and renewal in a cosmopolitan, moviegoing life style. As Claude Chabrol once observed, there are no waves, new or otherwise, there is only the ocean. Similarly, there are no peaks in the cinema, only a series of plateaus, and on the highest of these (in my view) is Kenji Mizoguchi and a score or more directors from various places and periods. I could have written about a great many other films and about a great many other directors. It just so happens that of all the directors I admire most highly, Mizoguchi remains the most mysterious and inaccessible. I have never before made a sufficient effort to justify my admiration for Mizoguchi. Of the eighty or ninety films he directed in a thirty-five-year career, I have seen only a dozen, but I am finally satisfied that I have seen the bulk of his finest work. Perhaps I have nothing more substantial to go on than Mizoguchi's own self-appraisal in a 1950 interview with a Japanese film critic: "Born in 1898, I shall be fifty-two in May this year. For a Japanese film-maker, I am perhaps not quite so young any more. As you see, I am in excellent health. I still find myself greatly attracted to women. I admit to feeling very envious of Matisse when I read in an article the other day that, when he was seventy, he had a child by a young woman of twenty. In any case, I think the true work of an artist can only be accomplished after he is fifty, when he has enriched his life with accumulated experiences."
Mizoguchi's self-prophecy took form on the screen with The Life of Oharu (1952), Vget su Monogatari (1953), Sansho the Bailiff, The Crucified Woman, Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954), The Empress Yang Kwei Fei and The Taira Clan (1955). Mizoguchi died in Kyoto on August 24, 1956 at the height of his powers and popularity. He left behind a heritage of sublime achievement that his admirers in the West would ponder on for years and years to come. I am grateful to Peter Morris, Donald Richie and J. L. Anderson for all the material they have compiled in English on Mizoguchi's life and career.
Ugetsu Monogatari is but one of five "favorite" Mizoguchi films I might have chosen for this anthology. The Empress Yang Kwei Fei or The Life of Oharu or The Taira Clan or Sansho the Bailiff can be said to merit as extended and as ecstatic an appraisal as does Ugetsu Monogatari, which I have chosen partly because it is the most familiar of Mizoguchi's films, and partly because it is the most delicately balanced between the mystical and humanistic tendencies in the director's personality.
The title Ugetsu Monogatari has been translated as Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain. The film's official credits indicate that the scenario is by Mizoguchi, Yoda Yoshikata and Kawaguchi Matsutaro, and has been adapted from a novel by Veda Akinari. Not only am I totally unfamiliar with the novel, I am not even sure that the novel is the sole literary source of the screenplay. Peter Morris's invaluable monograph Mizoguchi Kenji (published by the Canadian Film Institute) is somewhat ambiguous on this point: "Inspired by the classic tale of the sixteenth century, the story is an amalgam of a Chinese legend often called 'The Lewdness of the Female Viper' (twenty times adapted to films in Japan and China) and a novel, The House in the Broken Reeds."
Unfortunately, Morris never makes clear how much of the anecdotal material of the film is derived from the "classic tale of the sixteenth century," how much from "a Chinese legend," and how much from the novel. Or to what extent the various literary sources diverge or overlap as they flow to their ultimate destination on the screen. Perhaps it would have required another monograph merely to resolve this issue. No matter. The only point I wish to make is that my appreciation of Ugetsu is not based on the same proportion of overall cultural awareness as my appreciation of, say, The Magnificent Ambersons. As it happens, I neither read nor speak Japanese. Hence I cannot evaluate the readings of the dialogue in Ugetsu. I must either accept these readings on faith, or judge them deductively in terms of the parallel sensibility revealed in the supposedly universal language of the visual component.
"It is interesting to note," Morris tells us further on, "that the story on which Ugetsu was based was also used in a 1927 Japanese film, The Obscenity of the Viper, directed by Thomas Kurihara, who had been a cameraman for Thomas Ince in the U. S. A. By all accounts, this film showed considerable atmosphere. It would be interesting to know if Mizoguchi ever saw this earlier version."
It would, indeed; but again we are compelled to proceed with insufficient information. Beyond Ugetsu is a vast, shadowy configuration of cultural influences not only on Mizoguchi, but also on his collaborators and on his audiences. We must therefore defer any definitive appraisal of the literary origins of Ugetsu until some future unknown—if not, indeed, inconceivable—date. What is left to contemplate is a screen spectacle endowed with supposedly internationalizing and universalizing subtitles.
The two story lines that have been fashioned into the narrative fabric of Ugetsu may be said to be parallel but unequal. Involved in this rickety duplex structure are two obviously counterposed couples in a sixteenth-century Japanese village menaced by rampaging armies of one feudal lord or another. Genjuro (Mori Masayuki) is a potter so obsessed by his craft and the income it represents that he risks his own life and that of his wife (Tanaka Kinuyo) and little boy to keep his ceramics from being charcoaled in the untended kiln. Genjuro is assisted by a neighboring farmer (Ozawa Sakae) who dreams of becoming a great samurai warrior as an escape from both the drudgery of his work and the imprecations of his shrewish wife.
Successful in both rescuing his pots and evading the raping,...
(The entire section is 3389 words.)