The effect of the Second World War on Japanese Cinema cannot be easily understated. Beginning to some degree with the censoring of films by the Japanese government during the war, such as the seventeen minutes cut from Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata (1943), this practice did not end with the war. Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, the occupying American forces enforced strict rules of censorship on Japanese media, film included. But beyond the censoring of media, the Second World War affected Japanese films in terms of their subject matter and the positions that they took on a variety of issues and events. Among the numerous post-war Japanese films, Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) clearly embodies this trait. Following the tragic tale of a man, Genjurô (Masayuki Mori), trying to make his fortune, whom falls to his own greed and misguided ambitions, the film can at first seem harsh in relation to anyone trying to make something of themselves. But this is not what the film intends, as it instead seeks to provide a cautionary tale of the dangers of greed. The ambitions of Genjurô are not inherently wrong or blatantly discouraged, but what is cautioned against is the placement of said ambitions ahead of the well being of those around him. Ugetsu uses the tale of Genjurô to reflect on the culture and behavior of Japan during World War II while also cautioning against the same behaviors.
Imperialism hangs over the film as the actions of its main character can be easily paralleled to the actions of Japan during the Second World War. Genjurô seeks to become rich by way of his pottery and become more than his lot in life has allowed him so far. Similarly, Genjurô’s friend and fellow peasant Tôbei (Sakae Ozawa) seeks to become a noble samurai and gain glory by way of battle. And while both men are shown to have genuine concern for their respective families, neither of them fully grasps the consequences of their actions until it is far too late. By way of its characters, Ugetsu displays a clear caution for the love of money, but at the same time it does not condemn money or what comes from it. Instead, the film strikes a rather balanced stance on the issues of money and work as it seeks to plot out a balanced way of life that will be beneficial to those involved in it. Genjurô and Tôbei are not punished for their ambitions, but rather for the methods by way they seek to achieve these goals.
For Genjurô, money becomes his initial obsession after he makes a decent amount following a successful selling of his goods. But though he does not immediately cast his family aside, it is immediately clear by way of his cold obsession with work and his wife Miyagi’s (Kinuyo Tanaka) observations that he has changed in a way that is not beneficial for his family. And as the film continues, Genjurô only pulls farther and farther away from his family, and ultimately who he truly is, until he eventually abandons them altogether in an attempt to become something that he is not. Tôbei follows a similar path, though his is much more direct in his discounting of his family. And while both men are ultimately punished for their respective actions, Ugetsu does not dwell on this aspect as much as it focuses in on the respective actions that provoked these consequences. The consequences are important, both to the film and to the larger context that the film takes place in, but what Ugetsu seeks to, and succeeds in proving is that the actions that bring about these consequences must be focused and dwelled upon in order to prevent the same thing from happening again.
Eventually, Genjurô takes a step past his simple obsession with money into a full lifestyle that is not truly his own. Becoming obsessed and apparently in love with the enigmatic Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô), Genjurô completely abandons his old life, including his wife and child, as he adopts a new life that is not his own. Even as he begins to suspect that he is falling into some nefarious trap, he continues down his unfortunate path, as he desperately wants to be more than he was before. As long as he is in the presence of Lady Wakasa, Genjurô seems to not have any memory of the family that he had before, and it is only when he eventually attempts to break away from his new wife that he remembers his original family and reveals their existence to her. After all of this, with Lady Wakasa being revealed to be nothing more than a ghost whom wishes to walk amongst the living again, Genjurô attempts to return to his old life only to learn that his wife has died and is a ghost as well. The film concludes with Genjurô continuing onward with his young child, now wiser for what he has experienced. Tôbei too experiences his own arc and consequences, as he becomes a samurai by way of pure luck only to learn that his wife has become a prostitute. But for him, he is able to fully return to his old life with his wife without any loss of life. Though neither of the men suffer the loss of their own lives for their foolish and greedy actions, it is clear that they have been punished and that they both recognize as much.
Japan’s own actions in World War II can be seen in the paths that Genjurô and Tôbei respectively take. Tôbei eagerly marches off to war, oblivious to any of the potential consequences and what war truly means for those involved. Ugetsu is very ant-war in all of its war portrayals, as a vast majority of the soldiers seen in the film are doing nothing more than looting and killing civilians. Genjurô speaks more to the imperialism of Japan than the sister feature of an eagerness for war, as he seeks a position that is not true to what he is in his affair with Lady Wakasa. The position that Genjurô seeks to take is ultimately revealed as nonexistent, and he learns too little too late that his old life no longer exists as well because of these actions. Both of these examples oversimplify the complex issues and actions taken by Japan in the Second World War, but Ugetsu is less concerned with this than it is in simply offering a look at the actions taken by its country of origin in the same conflict. This is not to say that the film is soft on the issues though, as both men in the film are punished in their own devastating ways.
Ugetsu is ultimately an anti-war and anti-imperialism film. As it shows and argues throughout, its characters and the actions that they take are not sustainable in the sense that they will ultimately fail and be punished for their attempts, with the added consequence that their old lives will never be the same again. But the defining feature of the film is that it does not state that the characters are flawed because of what they want, but because of how they go about trying to achieve these respective wants. Genjurô is not flawed for wanting to gain money and bring prosperity to his family, but because he casts aside everything that truly matters in his attempt to do this. In the same way, Tôbei is not punished for wanting to gain glory by way of war, but because he runs away from his wife and completely disregards all of her needs. Both men consider their wives as the ones whom will primarily serve as witnesses to their eventual successes. But ultimately the wives are the ones whom suffer the most for the actions of their respective husbands, and the film is sure to highlight this fact. Ugetsu does not offer a soft look at the consequences of careless actions, and as a result it is able to reflect on the history that was recent when it was produced.