This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
In discussing Rear Window, I wrote of Hitchock’s peculiar and attractive visual style, appealingly voyeuristic as we watch characters from afar, unable to see them closely yet fascinated as if by a child gazing on an ant farm or a dollhouse. I noted that the style was rare, although imitated or echoed at times by Jacques Tati, Jerry Lewis, and Wes Anderson. Always there’s a playful, tongue-in-cheek nature to this camera approach, a lighter-than-air quality that makes us grin ear to ear. Even in Rear Window, a tense thriller, the style is employed with a wink and a nudge.
Yet, in a way, Kenji Mizoguchi is doing something similar in his masterpiece Ugetsu, to very different effect. The camera stands back, observing the characters not with a melancholy detachment but a kind of helpless and stoic compassion. We watch in this way not to adopt the point of view of the voyeur, focusing in on a detail from afar, but rather to engage in a more omniscient perspective, a sensibility aware of human foibles and the terrible serendipity of circumstance yet unable to avert their course. The effect is less akin to a charming dollhouse and more like a brutally beautiful Brueghel, taking in the tragedy and the beauty in one unblinking gaze.
This is not to suggest a frozen, fixed viewpoint – indeed, the camera moves perpetually, with a heartbreaking grace, as it takes in the story of two peasant families, husbands seduced by dreams of wealth or glory while the wives struggle merely to survive. The light spreads subtly across the landscape, illuminating everything for our eyes. The agility and sensitivity of Mizoguchi’s (and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa’s) lensing leads us to another interesting contrast. Just as the film’s humanism is at once removed and immersed, so the swooping dollies and restless rises of the camera create a sense of freedom in a story that is about anything but freedom.
After all, the characters are essentially prisoners of fate. Genjuro and Tobei make poor decisions, and by the end have learned their lessons (in some cases, too late), yet they are portrayed as being obsessive, compulsive even in their pursuit of passion. Does it really seem as if Genjuro could responsibly say, well the pottery is important but our lives are moreso – let’s leave the kiln behind and save ourselves? Or that, once he sells his pottery in the village and encounters the enchanging Lady Wakasa (who turns out to be a ghost) that he could refuse her entreaties? No – he is enchanted by the specter of luxury and comfort provided first by the pottery and then by Wakasa. It’s an essential part of his personal fabric, and he has to learn the hard way its price.
Meanwhile, Tobei – whose adventures are portrayed a bit more comically than Genjuro – is the archetypal griping, grasping aspirant. He wants to be a samurai, rushing from his wife’s side at every opportunity until he finally stumbles across the head of a dead general; he's made a false hero while his wife, abandoned and abused, must become a prostitute. At no point is he shown hemming and hawing, holding back before giving in to his childish ambitions. It’s clear as day that he simply must become a warrior, even under false pretenses, and for him to act any other way would be like the scorpion not stinging the frog.
Yet all these twists of fate and doom-laden lures are represented through a visual style evoking liberation and deliverance. It’s as if we are simultaneously perceiving the characters’ compulsions objectively and subjectively – on the one hand, quite aware of how controlled they are by their destructive desires and whims, on the other tuned in to their own frequency, where it seems as if one is harnessing these ominous waves of fate rather than simply being swept up by them. As Tobei crouches in the brush and seizes his opportunity to kill an unsuspecting soldier, as Genjuro rolls through a gorgeously sunlit field with Wakasa, we feel their sense of adventure, romance, and excitement even as we acknowledge the illusion.
Meanwhile, Tobei’s wife Ohama is casually raped, the cruel chuckling soldiers tossing her money when they finish, leaving her to wail and curse her husband’s selfishness. Genjuro’s wife Miyagi is just as casually murdered on a forest path, the scraggly bandits tussling over her goods while she dies quietly in the foreground, a baby wailing on her back. Here Mizoguchi’s exquisite direction – the tilts, pans, dollies, and backtracks of his silent eye – are not meant to evoke dreamscapes or the glamour of illusion, but rather a deeper sense of transcendence. No illusion exists in these brutal moments, and yet a kind of spiritual wellspring is tapped – reminding us not only of our suffering but of the wider stage upon which we play, struggle, hope, and die.
Rear Window and Playtime do a marvelous thing: they create worlds. Ugetsu does something just as marvelous, while more moving and mysterious: it captures the world we live in, forgotten or obscured perhaps in our daily lives, but there underneath the transitory joys and pains waiting to be rediscovered by eyes as clear and a voice as mutely compassionate as Mizoguchi’s.
Ugetsu appears at 1:10 in "The Restless Fifties", a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies".