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In the beginning of the springtime in the period of the Japanese Civil Wars of the Sixteenth Century in Lake Biwa in the Province of Omi, the family man farmer and craftsman Genjurô travels to Nagahama to sell his wares and makes a small fortune. His neighbor Tobei that is a fool man dreams on becoming a samurai, but he can not afford to buy the necessary outfit. The greedy Genjurô and Tobei work together manufacturing clay potteries, expecting to sell the pieces and enrich; however, their wives Miyage and Ohama are worried about the army of the cruel Shibata that is coming to their village and they warn their ambitious husbands. Their village is looted but the families flee and survive; Genjurô and Tobei decide to travel by boat with their wives and baby to sell the wares in a bigger town. When they meet another boat that was attacked by pirates, Genjurô decides to leave his wife and son on the bank of the river, promising to return in ten days. Genjurô, Tobei and Ohama raise a large... Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
You may read elsewhere about the film's (and the filmmaker's) boundless humanism, the graceful cinematography, the classical composition; platitudes about these abound on the web, instead I want to direct your attention elsewhere.
It's a really really simple film if we analyze academically - yet, always so curiously, so amusingly, it's these academical treatises that rumble on endlessly with their dry, boring 'insights' about the mise-en-scene. But a film handled with the elegance and competence of someone who knows about more than filmmaking; who just happens to be able to express himself in film, and so can posit us inside the film in richer ways than simply cinematic.
What I mean is this: on the surface this is one of the narratives on bad karma the Japanese were so fond of sharing with themselves, an older story from the late 18th century dressed up in film material. It is about two men who sow the seeds of their own undoing by pursuing status and wealth. Civil war tears the land, they exploit this to their advantage. One of them is merely a pompous buffoon, and through cowardice he gets to be a samurai - its own comment on the privileged caste. His punishment is ordinary, a simple irony. But the other, the sadder loss of the two, is a skilled artisan; a potter who could enrich lives by giving but instead devotes himself to accumulating. It is he who is granted a supernatural, extraordinary vision to remind him how far he has strayed. Ghosts appear to redress the balance, signifiers of a troubled soul.
(the Japanese nurtured a long genealogy of these types of stories, called 'kaidan'; film renditions, all of which have strong horror undertones, you will find in The Ghost of Yotsuya, The Ghost of Kasane Swamp, The Cursed Pond, Snake Woman's Curse, Portrait of Hell, The Snow Witch, and the Kaidan anthology which retells the Snow Witch story in one of its segments. Most of those were either produced at Shintoho studios or else at Daiei, who produced this as well.)
The is not where the film's power rests for me. The Japanese have given us since much better treatises on karma, Straits of Hunger and Sword of Doom from the following decade are two of them.
We may be inclined to rest our interpretation here with a passing comment on great camera-work, because all of this is more or less readily available to us, it makes some immediate sense. The closest type of film we have to this here in the West is film noir, and we have seen plenty of that already that this may even seem outdated; but noir was generally a semi-conscious product, made by artists who could feel nagging them inside the anxieties of a new life in the city but not quite put to words. So we got feverish dreams intuited from a restless sleep.
This is different. It comes from a long rich tradition of landscape painting, where the words (or images) are the expression of what has already been embodied. The painter impregnated with the outer images of everyday nature, reconstitutes reality on his scroll as the landscape of that interior heart-mind where the universe of myriad images dwells.
In other words: Hokusai did not paint Mt. Fuji because he thought it would look good, rather it looked good because he was meditating with his brush on the source of his life-world. Being able to see from inside, the result flowed out effortlessly, it floated on paper. So even though the landscapes are shown to be cascading up and down in forceful motions, our gaze is directed to the center of a profound repose that is immanent in all. The image itself is both the act of meditational devotion, and for us on the other end the space of contemplation.
So if we put Ugetsu to words it may seem pedantic, laborious. Yes, the pursuit of status and wealth is shown to be disastrous, but didn't we know already? Yes, eventually the soul is left with a lesson in humility, the acceptance of suffering and hard work - a work that unconditionally gives back, one of extraordinary humanity now. But if instead we contemplate on these notions using images the filmmaker has used to contemplate himself in painting them?
Look for the scene on a boat, we lose our characters from sight as they lose sight of themselves. Or later near the end, how the emptiness resonates when one of them sees for the first time the ruins of the illusionary world he has inhabited. It's a stunning accomplishment by a skilled artisan; we are always the Outer self, ignorant, desiring, our gaze deceived by folly like theirs, but eventually awakened when they are.
Ignore the voice-over that closes the film, it's a misstep and not a cinematic device. Allow this to sink deeper. When our potter is confronted with supernatural malice, temple bells chime in the soundtrack their reminder of Buddhist stillness in the face of mishap.
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