September 7, 1954 [Ugetsu monogatari]

Ugetsu monogatari is Kenji Mizoguchi's retelling of Akinari Ueda's "Tales of a Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain"—a title both stilted and beautiful, like the film's ghostly Lady Wakasa, lovely as only an Oriental ghost can be, hiding in the woods like a fawn, but still the doom of anyone who gets too close.

Two simple but ambitious men--one a potter who pursues wealth, the other a would-be samurai who seeks glory--endanger their families for the sake of their desires, while ghosts possess and spirits soothe, until ambition is humbled beneath the Buddha’s yearning for a middle path of compassion amidst suffering.

I just finished teaching a course in which the students slam and skid like demolition-derby drivers into the two-wheeled-turns and fireballs of various Deep Thinkers and High Talkers, from Plato to Emerson, Jung to Lao-Tzu. We finished with the topic of ethics and morality, for which we read a little Torah--Decalogue and addenda, Bill Blake's dreaded "thou shalt not's"--and some Sermon on the Mount--in which Jesus, with a straight face (I think Keaton learned it from Him), explains how the Law will stand (except for, you know, all that stoning and scowling and blind adherence)--and a sura from the Koran--we noticed how Allah sounds awe-fully familiar to Judeo-Christian ears, especially in His insistence that we take care of innocents and remember what side our bread's buttered on--or however that goes. We then gave glowering, towering Nietzsche a go-round; he was alternately hated and loved by my students. Some were insulted because he called them weak-minded whiners for believing in God (I explained to them that he was not under the same restrictions as they to treat his opposition with respect--as to why that's so, I maintained a diplomatic silence; he was, after all, our guest); others were relieved to hear that, God being dead, nothing was going to stand in their way, and they could finally be happy.

We finished with the Buddha, the calm assertion that we must serenely accept universal suffering--and thus promiscuously spread love and compassion, which made him lose credibility right off the bat among both believers and non-believers: the former seemed uncomfortable with the way he lumped them together with other camps, and the latter knew he was simply wrong. This kind of thing, they admitted, sounds nice--poetic, sensitive, idealistic--but enemies are enemies, after all, and life is competition, and so on. Earlier, we had read Machiavelli, who knew all about power; if pressed, I think as a group they'd vote him the most useful thinker, more so even than Jefferson with his generalities about equality and Maria Montessori and her advice to let kids fidget. (We read not deeply, but with breadth.) In short, you need to learn how to compete, that is, win; and, as you do, be prepared for attack; these are life's constants.

This is the smoking, rubble-strewn plain upon which Ugetsu begins. The men who seek fortune and glory are indeed successful, but of course at a bitter price, paid in a dreamlike marketplace, where Genjuro's babble of commerce is hushed by a beautiful, gliding ghost; and on the battlefield, where the clatter of warfare delivers a general's head to an accidental samurai, Tobei. Their gains and losses, captured by a mist-shrouded camera, provide an illustration of the calm insistence that one must enter another's suffering to end one's own--as well as the other's. Mizoguchi devotes the middle portion of his film to Genjuro's possession by Lady Wakasa. She is many things, not the least of which respite from the storms of ambition--as well as its prize: a beautiful, Geisha-like patroness who murmurs love over both Genjuro and his blue-tinged pottery. It is an essay on beauty, love, and delusion. And then Mizoguchi draws us down to the core, as he lingers on the child in the story, Genichi, and the women who suffer, Miyagi and Ohama, whose fates are mirrored by the tale of Lady Wakasa, abandoned as her noble house fell, lost like Miyagi and fallen like Ohama. Genjuro, seduced by the Lady's ghost, is then soothed by his wife's spirit, who appears to remind him of his true need--to show compassion and thus be loved--and lays him to rest, back home with his son.

Mizoguchi's film arrived at an opportune time for me. Just as I heard entreaties for selflessness fail in the classroom, the movies let me watch those pleas reassert and fulfill their promises. I'm glad Ugetsu was waiting for me when I needed it. Sneer at all beatitudes if you must; but be willing to lose everything that waits at the last verse.


  1. Though the details of the plot are lost to memory I remember this as a movie which conjures up a bygone Japan. We really talk about it in terms of Buddhism, because that is too broad a category which can mean too many different things.


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