One of the most stunning motion pictures ever made, not only in terms of its visual appeal and its haunting story, Ugetsu Monogari is the second installment of a dazzling triptych created by Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi. The first, released in 1952, was The Life of Oharu. In this seemingly benign tale of obligation, regret and sacrifice, we see an old woman in a temple flashing back through the events in her life as she struggles to make sense out of what has happened to her. Secrets and intrigue abound as she passes through many disparate phases in her search for meaning. The second portion of this 3-part epic is, as indicated earlier, Ugetsu Monogari.
Another mystical tale involving journeys, dreams and misfortune, the narrative in Ugetsu seems to be implying that a certain amount of magic and luck are needed to navigate the potentially treacherous rivers of life. On the other hand, Mizoguchi’s message here may also be that traditionally women in Japan faced obstacles unique to their gender.
The final chapter of Mizoguchi’s powerful triptych, Sansho the Bailiff, clues the audience in to the travails of women with a simple caption at the beginning of the film: one of the oldest and most tragic stories in Japan’s history. It belongs in the mists of antiquity before mankind had yet awakened as human beings.
As we return our focus to Ugetsu Monogari, the pattern made implicit later in Sansho the Bailiff becomes clear: Women must sacrifice everything in this life while men are left to carry on as best they can.
Mizoguchi has often been referred to as a ‘woman’s director. This designation strikes the casual observer as too simplistic. While Mizoguchi’s plots and narratives often involved the struggles women faced in 19th century Japan, they also point to a double standard that for the most part exists today, both in Japan and in modern societies throughout the world.