What is the difference between having enough, wanting more and when will you stop? Ugetsu is a ghost-story film from 1953 directed by Kenji Mizoguchi that tells the story of villages in the Omi Province of Japan. The film is, on the outside, rather simple: a fairy tale that revolves around a potter, his assistant and their wives.
Genjuro, the main potter, and Tobei are trying to make their way crafting and selling pottery to whomever will buy, but Tobei has higher aspirations. After their village is ransacked by marauding soldiers, he decides that he should become a samurai at whatever the cost. While this happens, Genjuro makes a sale to a wealthy, young noblewoman who requests the wares to be delivered to the house. Upon arriving he, a married man, is seduced into taking the noblewoman’s hand in marriage, an arrangement that would fulfill his desire to rise above his current ranks as a lowly potter.
During all of this we see the village under assault a second time and Miyagi, the wife of Genjuro, being attacked, and we come across Tobei’s wife, who was forced to work at a brothel after he had left her to pursue his dreams of being a samurai. Not long after the second attack, bits and pieces of the story start to fall into place, leading to a somewhat surprising dénouement.
Something that confounded me after watching the film was learning that it was designed to be well received by international audiences rather than for Japanese filmgoers. If the film was modern, that would not be much of a surprise when, every December, we see several films released in award season. For Ugetsu we have a Japanese film that played better everywhere but Japan.
That doesn’t really matter, though. Ugetsu is a very fine film with a telling, soulful story that had a calming effect on me. A subtle, vital, reminder that you can work for what you want. You can work hard for it but it might not come, and after too much strife you may find out that you missed what you have been working for, which should be yourself.