How far would you go for success? How far is too far?
In Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Ugestsu,” two families in feudal Japan are destroyed by the greed and ambition of man — with women paying the true price.
With the countryside gripped by civil war, rural villagers Genjūrō and Miyagi manage to make a tidy sum selling their earthenware pots to the soldiers in town. Meanwhile, their neighbor Tōbei, to the chagrin of his wife Ohama, dreams of becoming a samurai. (He’s kind of a huge loser.)
The men realize their ambitions… but at great cost!
Genjūrō has success selling his pottery at a distant market, but must leave Miyagi and their son Genichi behind due to the threat of pirates on the perilous journey there. He is invited to deliver some wares to the home of a noblewoman, Lady Wakasa, where he is flattered and seduced into marrying her. While he’s away, Miyagi and Genichi are attacked by wandering war refugees. Miyagi is stabbed to death.
Anyway, it turns out Lady Wakasa is a ghost, killed in the war, who wants to take Genjūrō to the land of the dead for all eternity. He escapes with the help of a friendly exorcist, but loses everything in the process.
In the meantime, Tōbei also abandons his wife in the countryside. He lies, cheats, and steals his way into becoming a bonafide samurai, with a horse and armor and everything, but in his absence Ohama is raped and forced to take up prostitution to support herself. He finds her in a pleasure house, and, horrified and ashamed, he abandons the life of a samurai and vows to restore her honor.
As a collection of moral fables, “Ugestsu” fell kind of flat for me. I do give Mizoguchi a great deal of credit, though, for giving the women in the story enough depth to be more than just objects to be lost or redeemed by their husbands. Even the ghastly Lady Wakasa is sympathetic, desperate even in death for the happiness and love that was stolen from her by a man’s war.
It’s as a ghost story that “Ugestsu” excels. The Lady Wakasa segments are genuinely unnerving — particularly the sound.