#257. Ugetsu (1953)

Same as with Tokyo Story, just a couple titles back, Ugetsu‘s got a clear-ish story that seems a little opaque, especially toward the end, ebcause of what feel like culturally-specific nuances that I’m not picking up on. Particularly its supernatural elements, whcih are modest; there’s a vibe of spookiness that I think might make more sense if the viewer’d grown up in Japan and knew what these sorta spectral succubi figures represent about the culture.

Because there’s a big sign of cultural difference between east and west right from the beginning when Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), a potter, comes home with fists fulla coin from a major sale he just had in town. His wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), greets him, ecstatic, but her joy is tempered by some rumors about an army coming into the village (stories of warfare immediately fog my brain over, so the politics surrounding the conflict here were kinda disorienting). They’re cool and cozy for a bit, celebrating the sale, but Genjuro, the patriarch, says at one point, with a proud smile, “Money is everything. Without it, life is hard.” This kinda talk clearly gives Miyagi pause. She kinda touches her chest and averts her eyes.

Dude goes on to talk about all the work he’s gotta do in the coming days, calculating how much money it might generate–and meanwhile she’s telling him, “Dude, soldiers could be here as soon as tomorrow. We just made a tonna money. Let’s pack our shit and go.”

But he wants to keep working. there’s a big transaction in the wors and he stands to make a lotta money.

The soldiers do eventually arrive and he ends up jeopardizing his whole family because he’s obsessed with getting his work done.

What’s striking is that, on the basis of this, I’m reading in comments about the movie that one of its major themes is greed–and yeah, I can see that;e ven in the US, at the time, I’m sure a lotta people would have taken it that way.

But the US was also in a period of postwar prosperity. GIs were getting their footing as productive citizens and a look at its cinema shows cars and industry and good spirits and virtue.

If an American of the early ’50s were watching that opening half hour, where Genjuro is kinda punished for his greed, I think it would take them a while to process that greed is a theme. Because the American idea of greed was probably something more like the cigar chomping Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life, or the thieving murderous Tony Camonte of Scarface.

Men who don’t get their wealth honestly.

But Genjuro works for his money. He works hard. And he isn’t using his prospective wealth to buy a yacht or anything gaudy. He buys his wife a modest kimono. He relishes a meal with his child.

Sergeant York comes to mind, and the beatific first half where Gary Cooper’s raising money to buy his own piece of land–practically forsaking friends and family for a shot at prosperity. Or Cagney’s humble up-by-your-bootstraps workaholic dancer in Yankee Doodle Dandee.

The rest of the movie shows how women suffer at the behest of men’s misguided ambition, and I can’t tell if that ending, with Genjuro freeing himself from the curse of a beautiful heiress (with menacing eyebrows) is supposed to be a happy one.

I see that it’s described as a romantic fantasy, and knowing now, in retrospect, that I should’ve been looking at it that way, it’s ringing my bell a little differently. Maybe I’ll give it another look. The only way it was really engaging for me this time around, though, was as a platform for observing what appear to be some substantive cultural differences.


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