In the sixteenth century, Japan is in a chaotic time of social upheaval and constant military conflict between warlords. Farmers Genjuro and Tobei realise that the pottery they make can sell well at the market in town. Seduced by prospects of wealth and social mobility, they embark on a dangerous trip through war zones, taking their family with them. While Tobei succeeds in becoming a samurai and then, by chance, a commanding officer, his wife Ohama is raped by soldiers and becomes a prostitute. They eventually reunite, reconcile, and go back to the village together. Genjuro is invited to Princess Wakasa’s mansion and becomes her lover. After days of pleasure, he discovers that she is a ghost, escapes her spell, and returns home, where his wife Miyagi and their son welcome him. The next morning it turns out that Miyagi has been murdered by soldiers and yet come back as a ghost. Genjuro promises her spirit to lead a simple life in the village.
Kenji Mizoguchi took his first trip to Europe when he brought Ugetsu to the 1953 Venice International Film Festival. For the opening ceremony, he wore a montsuki (formal kimono with one’s crest printed) made of white linen deliberately sans haori jacket. Mizoguchi and his company, including the leading lady Kinuyo Tanaka in an exquisite, contemporary arrangement of the sixteenth-century kimono, paraded a couple of blocks from the Excelsior Palace to the Cinema Palace. As they entered the Palace, applause and sighs of admiration arose. An accompanying film critic noted: ‘That was an effective publicity’. 1 Mizoguchi’s staging of a self-Orientalising spectacle of a kimono in Venice, in retrospect, epitomises how Mizoguchi’s – and Japanese cinema’s – relationship with the world was mediated through the idea of Japaneseness in the early post-Second World War period. At the same time, we must acknowledge that Mizoguchi’s choice of white linen, rather than formal black, as well as Tanaka’s revisionist kimono, added a twist to the straightforward presentation of ethnic authenticity, even though very few, if any, Western spectators in Venice could tell those fine differences. The film Ugetsu, like its director’s image control, can be seen as a negotiation of Japanese culture in global modernity.
Ugetsu received thunderous applause at the screening and eventually a Silver Lion at the closing ceremony on the 4th of September. It solidified Mizoguchi’s reputation within the international film circuit, following The Life of Oharu (1952), a Silver Lion winner of the previous year. It is well known that the younger Akira Kurosawa’s unanticipated triumph with Rashomon (1950) in Venice in 1951 directly stimulated Mizoguchi to crave for international recognition.2 Yet, in effect, another ghost story Mizoguchi had made in 1926, titled The Passion of a Woman Teacher (Kyoren no onna shisho), had been exported to France in 1929 and screened privately to an audience.3 Even though recent research suggests that the film was never commercially distributed, and then presumably was shelved, lost and forgotten, it never left Mizoguchi’s mind.4 For his part, three Silver Lions (the third for Sansho the Bailiff in 1954) were tokens of a fair recognition that belatedly and finally arrived.
For our part, of interest is what may have caused the marked gap in the European reception of these two films, The Passion of a Woman Teacher and Ugetsu. I do not think it is a matter of some intrinsic artistic quality. Judging from the contemporary Japanese reviews, The Passion of a Woman Teacher, a dark, erotic tale of obsessive love and vengeance, was probably a brilliant film. Rather, a paradigm change in geopolitics of international film culture and industry that took place between 1929 and 1953 made ‘world cinema’ possible, and thus determined the respective fates of the two ghost stories.
Three interconnected factors were at play in this paradigm change. First, what Dudley Andrew, with much attention to Mizoguchi and Japanese cinema, aptly called ‘federalism’ emerged in Europe, taking shape most explicitly at international film festivals such as Cannes or post-war Venice. The ‘federal model’ of film culture, like the United Nations or UNESCO, was envisioned in the aftermath of the disastrous consequences of nationalism during the Second World War by local (i.e. European) alliances and communities of filmmakers, critics, and enthusiasts. ‘Often explicitly commanding high moral ground, festivals claimed to be utopias where the appreciation of difference and similarity would contribute to tolerance, coexistence, and, of course, a richer cinema’ (Andrew 2010: 71). Without the establishment of this phase, a film from a nonWestern nation like Ugetsu would not have been recognised and evaluated in the name of film art.
Second, from the late 1940s throughout the 1950s, in the United States – the largest film market where ‘films’ had been synonymous with Hollywood products – art-house film circuits were established and played foreign films. As Douglas Gomery points out, several historical factors were at play behind this change. For instance, the GI bill produced an unparalleled number of educated audience members who developed familiarity with and interest in foreign culture through their service during the Second World War. Also, as the Paramount decision in 1948 weakened the major studios’ control over movie theatres, independent theatre owners were pushed to look for a niche audience. And, of course, the contents mattered. In the post-war world, foreign films, starting with Rome, Open City (1946), took the lead in redefining film art (Gomery 1992: 180–93). Thus, producer and screenwriter Matsutaro Kawaguchi was approached by a young representative at Venice and sealed a contract for Ugetsu’s American distribution, even before the film officially received the prize.5
Third, the confluence of the European vision of federalism at international film festivals and the establishment of art-house film circuits in the US increased transatlantic traffic in film, generating a historically specific way of film-viewing called cinephilia and its accompanying mode of film criticism, the politique des auteurs, in the auditorium of the Cinémathèque française in Paris. Mizoguchi was assigned a position within the canon of world cinema wrought by auteurist critics, such as Alexandre Astruc, Jean-Luc Godard, Luc Moulet, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer (McDonald 1993: 123–4, 131–3; Rivette 1985: 264). They found Mizoguchi’s cinema ‘universal’ not through its roots in the particular, i.e. Japanese culture, but through its mise en scène. In effect, Mizoguchi’s films were indispensable in and constitutive of the formation of the universalist ground that has supported the politique des auteurs’s global operation across language and culture. Thus, the obscurity of The Passion of a Woman Teacher and the glory of Ugetsu were thoroughly historically determined.
It is well known that Ugetsu emerged, in the collaborative writing process by the screenwriters Yoshikata Yoda and Kawaguchi and Mizoguchi, as a patchwork of several originals, which were not necessarily ‘Japanese’: short stories from the Tokugawa-era author Akinari Ueda’s collection Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain, 1776), ‘The House Amid the Thickets’, ‘The Lust of the White Serpent’, and possibly ‘The Chrysanthemum Vow’, all of which were further based on Chinese ghost stories written in the Ming period, as well as Guy de Maupassant’s short story ‘The Legion of Honor’ (1883) (McDonald 1993: 79–112). According to Yoda, the script underwent several rewrites. In the torturous process, a sarcastic allegory in which a man who called himself the ‘spirit of money’ parades with jingling noise of coins, and where Tobei and Ohama triumph in their respective worldly success as a warlord and a courtesan, was turned into the serious humanist drama we know today.6 The Japanese film mogul Masaichi Nagata, having produced Rashomon (winner of the 1951 Venice GrandPrix), clearly had his eye on another prize and on distribution contracts in Europe and North America in working on the Ugetsu project. Nagata believed that in order for a Japanese film to succeed on the international film market, it must have a ‘universal’ theme, a small number of protagonists, and a simple storyline.7 It is very likely that Ugetsu’s script was made palatable to the international audience, as the Daiei president-producer imagined it. Ugetsu’s heterogeneous materials, however, worked productively for Mizoguchi in creating a new kind of visual narration inspired by a Japanese aesthetic tradition, the handscroll (emakimono). It seems obvious to compare Mizoguchi’s film style to the handscroll; Noël Burch has drawn on this trope in order to highlight two distinctive devices in Mizoguchi’s 1930s style: lateral traveling shots which pass and penetrate partitions, and higher-than-eye-level camera angles (Burch 1979: 228–9). Mizoguchi’s own explanation, however, indicates a different set of devices. Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographer on Ugetsu and seven other Mizoguchi films, recalled the director’s words: ‘Miyagawa, I’d like to make a film like a handscroll (emakimono). My films from now on should be, above all, straight and irreversible like a handscroll, which you can look through successively, and don’t have to return to the beginning again once you finish looking. You can smoothly follow the story of this handscroll in sequence until the end, and its pictures consist of climactic moments, some strong touches and other weaker ones’. 8 Judging from what he and Miyagawa did and considering the handscroll’s narrative technique, Mizoguchi seems to have meant a particular kind of continuity and irreversibility that swiftly connects two or more different objects, locations, and temporalities.
Mizoguchi is known for the long take. The unblinking look at the murder of Miyagi testifies for such reputation, as Robin Wood brilliantly put it (McDonald 1993: 148–9). Most critics would agree, therefore, to place his style on the side of spatiotemporal continuity in opposition to montage in the taxonomy of film aesthetics. Ugetsu, however, in some of its best moments, connects and smoothly merges two or more heterogeneous or even incongruous parts with each other through montage, camera movements, or just change of lighting. The famous one shot where Genjuro reunites with Miyagi’s ghost offers a good example: the circular movement of the camera and the changes of lighting and setting transform an abandoned house into a welcoming home, and thereby connect the realm of reality with that of fantasy and the supernatural in a seamless manner. And, at the end of this sequence, as Miyagi sits sewing by the sleeping Genjuro and their son, a few seconds in the fixed shot represents the passage of a few hours from night to morning by means of the magic of lighting and otherwordly music. Ugetsu’s generic, intermedial, and transnational connections with horror and fantasy provided Mizoguchi with an opportunity to bridge different realms: reality and fantasy, natural and supernatural, and this and other worlds.
Godard finely described another brilliant example of such bridging in Ugetsu:
“Genjuro is bathing with the fatal enchantress who has caught him in her net; the camera leaves the rock pool where they are disporting themselves, pans along the overflow which becomes a stream disappearing into the fields; at this point there is a swift dissolve to the furrows, other furrows seem to take their place, the camera continues tranquilly on its way, rises, and discovers a vast plain, then a garden in which we discover the two lovers again, a few months later, enjoying a picnic. Only masters of the cinema can make use of a dissolve to create a feeling which is here the very Proustian one of pleasure and regrets.” (Godard 1972: 71)
Originally written in 1958 by the future master of montage of incongruous fragments through dissolves, this passage effectively highlights Ugetsu’s tour de force.
Mizoguchi was a modernist; he carefully picked stories and aesthetic idioms from a repository of Japanese and transnational traditions available to him, took them out of context, put them together through ‘montage’, and presented an innovative, eerie continuity as ‘Japanese’. Even though he was painfully aware of the asymmetrical power relations of the ‘world cinema’ paradigm, he probably knew that nothing would start without becoming a player in it.
1. Chiyota Shimizu, ‘Yoroppa eiga kiko: Venisu Eigasai ni shusseki shite’, Kinema junpo, 15 September 1953, p. 28.
2. Yoda Yoshikata, Mizoguchi Kenji no hito to geijutsu, Tokyo, Tabata Shoten, 1970, p. 193.
3. Kuninosuke Matsuo, ‘Nikkastsu eiga no Furansu yuki’, Kinema junpo March 1st, 1929, 70, Matsuo, Pari monogatari, Tokyo: Shakai Hyoronsha, 2010, pp. 208–9. For The Passion of a Woman Teacher’s synopsis, its relationship to the original story, Shinkei kasanegafuchi, and contemporary reception, see Tsutomu Saso, Mizoguchi Kenji zen sakuhin kaisetsu, Vol. 4, Tokyo, Kindai Bungeisha, 2005, pp. 258–309. Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Ring 2) was highly conscious of this lineage in adapting the same original into his costume horror Kaidan (2007) at the height of his international fame.
4. Tamaki Tsuchida, ‘Senzenki no Nihon eiga ni okeru “kokusaisei” no gainen: Nippon ni miru Kawakita Nagamasa no yume’, Cre Biz, No. 7, 2012. Available at www.toho-univ.ac.jp/univ_info/_pdf/crebiz07_02.pdf (accessed 6 October 2013). Kenji Mizoguchi, ‘Jisaku o kataru’, Tsutomu Saso ed., Mizoguchi Kenji chosakushu, Tokyo, Omuro, 2013, p. 362.
5. Matsutaro Kawaguchi, ‘Sekai isshu nikki’, 4 September 1953, Nihon Kindai Bungakukan, Kawaguchi Matsutaro Collection.
6. I confirmed this account in Yoda’s memoirs with the first draft of the script in the Kazuo Miyagawa collection. My deep gratitude goes to Jiro Miyagawa.
7. Masaichi Nagata, Eigado masshigura, Tokyo, Surugadai Shobo, 1953.
8. Kaneto Shindo, Aru eiga kantoku no shôgai: Mizoguchi Kenji no kiroku, 1st ed., Tokyo, Eijinsha, 1975, p. 313.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Japan. Production Company: Daiei’s Kyoto Studio. Producer: Masaichi Nagata. Director: Kenji Mizoguchi. Screenwriters: Matsutaro Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda (based on stories by Akinari Ueda). Sound: Iwao Otani. Cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa. Lighting: Kenichi Okamoto. Art Director: Kisaku Ito. Music: Fumio Hayasaka. Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka (Miyagi), Machiko Kyo (Wakasa), Mitsuko Mita (Ohama), Masayuki Mori (Genjuro), Sakae Ozawa (Tobei).]
Dudley Andrew, ‘Time Zones and Jetlag: The Flows and Phases of World Cinema’, in Nataša Durovicová and Kathleen Newman (eds), World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, New York, Routledge, 2010, pp. 59–89.
Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1979.
Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, trans. and ed. Tom Milne, New York, Da Capo Press, 1972.
Douglas Gomery, Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
Keiko I. McDonald (ed.), Ugetsu: Kenji Mizoguchi, Director, New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1993.
Jacques Rivette, ‘Mizoguchi Viewed from Here’, trans. Liz Heron, in Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinema the 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 264.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.