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Ugetsu Monogatari
[Tales of Moonlight and Rain]

Genre: Classic Japanese Ghost Tale

review in one breath

This classic supernatural morality tale follows the path of two men who prioritize their ambitions above all else and inadvertently set aside their families and responsibilities. This 1953 ghost tale is arguably the FIRST truly Japanese horror film and is thus required viewing for anyone seriously interested in the whole of J-Horror.


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intro

This 1953 black and white film is directed by Mizoguchi Kenji and is based on two much earlier written tales by Ueda Akinari (1734-1809) entitled Jasei-no In and Asadigayado, both contained in a collection Ueda entitled Ugetsu monogatari (Tale of Moonlight and Rain).

It has been suggested by many that this film is the first truly Japanese horror film, referring to its being perhaps the first film to fully depict a Japanese perspective of the supernatural and its meaning. As such, the film has incredible historical value and is for that reason alone well worth seeing. But more importantly, perhaps, is that the film is so well done and its haunting imagery and narrative so effective that it has held a long lasting influence upon later directors of Japanese film, and particularly upon those pursuing horror.

But interestingly enough, you will not find the elements of Ugetsu Monogatari rehashed over and over again in later films. The was no sequel nor any chain of loosely related films like one sees today revolving around the popular Ringu or Juon. This results in a rather fresh preservation of an effectively haunting tale which, even after half a century will strike viewers as unique.

The core message of this film, and indeed it has one, is thoroughly humanitarian and moral. The weaving of supernatural and action elements around the development of this message is accomplished so well that a very powerful finality emerges wherein the intended moral warning comes through crystal clear.

The setting for this tale is sometime within the Sengoku Era (aka the Warring Period) wherein, for the most part, villagers eked out rather poor levels of existence while roaming armies of warring daimyos gradually decimated populations and livelihoods. In the absence of any government or political stability, even at the local level, the threat of injustice and death looms ever-present.

story

In a small rural village Genjuro (Mori Masayuki) diligently crafts his pottery to be sold in a neighboring town's market. His artistic skill has allowed him to adequately support his wife Miyagi (Tanaka Kinuyo) and their small son. They are aided occasionally by their neighbor Tobei (Ozawa Eitaro) and his wife Ohama (Mito Mitsuko¬≠¬ź). Tobei has no skills of his own but has lofty dreams of becoming a great samurai despite his wife's astute observations that he has absolutely no training, no armor and zero experience.

After returning from a trip to the neighboring town's marketplace, Genjuro excitedly tells his wife how successful he had been in selling their wares and hands over to her a sizable amount of money. They rejoice at their success but by the next day Genjuro already has plans for creating his largest-ever batch of pottery in the hopes of reaping even greater profits. The project is so large, in fact, that he offers Tobei a portion of the sales in return for his help, an offer Tobei quickly agrees to already knowing how he will spend his money.

But getting their wares to market proves very dangerous when rapacious gangs of soldiers suddenly flood the area. Risking the lives and safety of themselves and their families, great effort is made in getting their pottery to the marketplace. Once there, however, the pottery sells quickly and the goal of amassing more money is soon realized.

In the midst of their selling, the craftsmanship of Genjuro's pottery catches the eye and admiration of a young and beautiful noblewoman who purchases several pieces and requests they be delivered to her palace on the outskirts of town. That evening he giddily makes his way to the woman's expansive house while Tobei sneaks away to spend his money on his samurai dream.

verdict

In essence this is a cautionary tale regarding one's goals in life and the ability to be satisfied with the basic joys and loves therein. The separate paths of the two men following their successes at the market place both lead to what they deem to be "ideal" scenarios. Their notions of ideal, however, prove absolutely disastrous morally, spiritually and physically. The message here comes across very powerfully.

Throughout, this film is actually quite fast-paced, containing plenty of action alongside its deeper and more contemplative currents. There really are no prolonged dialogue-filled and actionless parts to the film and for this reason remains very engaging as the narrative unfolds.

This is truly one worth checking out and I know you won't be disappointed if you do.

Version reviewed: Region 1 subtitled DVD available at all mainstream venues.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Definitely a classic. Arguably the first truly Japanese horror film. It is indeed advisable to flee those starving and rapacious bands of soldiers. Just a little nookie, in that 1953 sort of way. This is truly a memorable and effective film which will thoroughly immerse you in haunting Japanese superstitions.

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