Thoughts On: Ugetsu Monogatari - The Ghost Of The Female Archetype


Ugetsu Monogatari - The Ghost Of The Female Archetype

Thoughts On: Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales After The Rain, 1953)

Two couples risk their lives to sell pots during war time in 16th century Japan.

Ugetsu Monogatari is a Japanese masterpiece by Kenji Mizoguchi, who, along with Kurosawa and Ozu, played a crucial role in bringing Japanese filmmaking into the spotlight of world-wide audiences. This is a film that explores war in a similar manner to that which Shindo does with Onibaba. In such, this uses the period drama (jidaigeki) to reflect upon WWII and its affect upon Japanese society. However, whilst Onibaba is much about how chaos escalates towards destruction, Ugetsu is about order, or structure, of a specific kind leading towards destruction.

In a powerful early scene, Ugetsu comments on the frailty of life with the invasion of our protagonists' village. Whilst soldiers rampage through homes, taking men into forced labour and ravaging women, presumably turning many into "comfort women" (ianfu) which essentially meant that they were forced into prostitution by the imperial army, our four main figures risk their lives and freedom - and one couple's young son - to save a batch of pottery. Herein lies the crux of this narrative as this scene encapsulates the core conflict of Ugetsu: structure. Structure as a concept usually manifests itself in terms of materialism - money - in this film. With money it is unquestionable that life becomes possible and, depending on how much you have, easier. However, if money, much like possessions, come to define your life and the structuring of your being, you will find yourself walking a very perilous road as our main characters do when they risk all they have for some pots that they can sell.

It is very easy to see money (i.e materialism or capitalism) as the great evil that pervades over history and life. However, money is just paper or metal. Money is a symbol of trade. Thus, money, much like all material possessions, comes to symbolise an abstract idea of what exists between ourselves and others: it represents a social facade. And so, material possession is not just a currency of life in a direct sense - money does not just buy us food - but a currency of ones future in the abstract because material items represent who we are and how we are to be interacted with. This is made very clear throughout Ugetsu with a strong presence of hierarchy that is signified by clothing: the armour of a samurai and the kimono of a rich lady. We can all recognise the fallibility of this structure of being: to live and behave only in regards to ones own and others' facades is shallow. However, in this respect, what does "shallow" mean?

To be shallow is to have no personal depth and, by extension of this, have no ability to perceive complexity in the people or world around you. Not being shallow is then defined, in large part, by an ability to transcend the material world and peer into the realm of possibility. In such, to have depth is to have potential; to see depth is to see potential. Thus, in Ugetsu, our main male protagonist, Genjurō, becomes shallow when he neglects an idea of the future as ambiguous and dangerous. In refusing to see his exploitation of war as a precarious and dangerous affair, Genjurō then loses sight of possibility. And this leads him down a slippery road of thinking of his life in terms of certainty and money; him selling his pottery and becoming rich. This mind-set infects Tōbei, his neighbour and co-worker, who is already susceptible to failing to see the future with depth and potential dangers because he is so scornful of his financial situation and ungrateful for his family life (he wants to become a samurai for the money and fame, despite not knowing how to fight and thinking that he only needs armour and a spear). As a result, the two define themselves by certainty - a certainty that lies in materialism: pots, money and clothing. Their wives recognise the trouble of this, but cannot stop their stubborn husbands. This loss of influence in the wives signifies that the two men are becoming further shallow: they do not see the depths and potential of their wives.

This is where we come to the key scene in which all four characters risk their lives to save the pots. On one hand, they must all be thinking that they are salvaging their existence in a dreaded time of war, that they are taking a risk so that they can make some money and continue living. However, on the other hand, they must recognise the stupidity of their actions and the fault in holding material possession in greater stead than the security of a family circle. Fate, however, does not do our characters a favour. Whilst they manage to escape capture, the pots also survive; they do not get the lesson in the importance of family that they needed and that the ruined pots would provide. Taking their dumb luck and running with it, the beginning of the end is then signified.

Having already lost sight of the depths of the future and of people, three of our main characters become rich whilst Genjurō's wife and son await their return in hiding. However, now he has some money Tōbei runs away from his wife to buy armour - which leaves her to be captured and forced into prostitution. Furthermore, Genjurō allows his material possessions to define him and thus when a woman - who turns out to be a demon - attempts to seduce him because of his ability to craft pots, he follows her and abandons his wife and son. What we see here is the husband's shallowness ironically materialise; their obsession with material possession turns themselves and, more tragically, their wives into objects for fate to exploit. For the wives, this is, as we would expect, devastating: Tōbei's wife is raped (presumably multiple times) and turned into a prostitute, whilst Genjurō's wife suffers to keep her son alive before dying. Meanwhile, the men are left to be tortured by their stupid mistakes for the rest of their lives.

If we step back to the very beginning of this narrative, it is clear that we are made to realise that, whilst the structure of materialism and money is faulted, there is a connected and higher structure: family. Family defines the presence of social ties. Money and possessions influence and regulate social ties. Individual actions determine how social ties function. Ugetsu follows this paradigm by presenting the family as a group of connected people under the threat of being pulled apart (by war). Further to this, money and material possession are used throughout as a device that determines how the family live: if they are in poverty, if they are in ecstasy, if they are alone, etc. It is, however, the two men's individual descent into shallowness - a perception defined by the present and material objects - that ultimately destroys the family. And whilst we watch this play out, we are constantly made to hear the words, "family is all that matters", ring in our heads. Why is this?

As mentioned, this film is about destruction via structure, not chaos. Thus, there is always a presence of the female archetype (which structures - such as family - revolve around) in this film; it is the men's conception of their wives that leads them into descent, and later for Genjurō it is a demon that motivates him. This paradigm is key to Ugetsu as family is the force that is always in conflict with war. And so, whilst war is defined by the destruction of others with, sometimes, some base in preserving land and people, family is only about the preservation of others. And this preservation, whether in war or in a family circle, is boiled down to the union of male and female archetypes. It is then through these two archetypes that we eventually see destruction flourish through union and structure.

With the man and woman together, there is, literally and figuratively, the possibility for creation and preservation. Singularly, the man and the woman (especially in modern times) can exist. However, under the pressure of chaos - under the pressure of something as intense as a war, or just as minimal as personal existential conflicts - if men and woman do not support one another, then all are doomed. I am of course speaking in general terms here, and so recognise that there is greater intricacy to human relations than the dichotomy between male and female (the anima and animus if we were to attempt to be more precise). However, speaking in terms of concept, narrative and Ugetsu, this unity via the male and female is key to pick up on as a prevalent and pertinent force of human history.

The bond between male and female in Ugetsu suggests that the depths of humanity is found in this basic unity; in family, which, itself, is the product of a man and woman. This is very clear as, when the two men of this movie become shallow and see the world as a playing ground in which objects and materials can be won, they loose sight of their wives as human beings that not only have depth within them, but use this depth to decipher the danger and ambiguity of the world before them: the husbands become so blinded and arrogant that they fail to hear their warnings and so see them suffer by virtue of the shallowness.

In focusing on Genjurō, Mizoguchi finds greater complexity in this commentary by reviving a female archetype through the demon: Lady Wakasa. Wakasa is one of the most important characters in this film as she is the manifestation of our shallow male. She then represents unity, but she is corrupt: she is a representation of death, as is said in the film. What we are then seeing with Wakasa is a commentary on war. As mentioned, wars can be fought for freedom, country and family: preservation. However, wars exploit the human proclivity to preserve for the sake of destruction: we, somewhat paradoxically, destroy some to save others in war. The female archetype, whether it be a motherland or "a girl worth fighting for" to reference Mulan, can then be understood to be the catalyst for war. As is shown in Ugetsu, this is true on smaller scales, too: men work and earn money for women and family. However, there is a corruption here. Losing sight of the true female archetype - a wholesome and functional idea of family, your wife, your land - will leave you fighting for what they represent rather than what they are. In such, a woman, as bonded with a man, can signify happiness, high social standing, unity, strength and success in various forms. However, shades of happiness, social standing and success can be found elsewhere: in money, material possessions, power, etc. It is the paradigm of seeking to own an object rather than understand and co-exist with a subject (who the female archetype really is; your wife for example) that is the fatal flaw that arises numerous times across history to cause devastating tragedies that this movie comments on with symbolic war and shallow men.

However, in critiquing war and shallow, blind men, Ugetsu depicts the suffering of women whilst understanding that the shallow, blind men (and maybe war, too) are initially motivated by the protection of women. It is then the movement from life to death, from the true and real female archetype (the wife) to the hollow ghost of the female archetype (a demon), that lies at the heart of this movie and allows it to depict the twisting of human nature; that which, notable, couldn't be without mother nature.

In conclusion, the structure that Ugetsu is focused on rests upon the idea of a family as centred on the female. With men replacing real females (their wives) with ghostly, death-bound representations of females by seeking fame, fortune and empty love that they do not have to work for, they use a faint idea of structure for the sake of destruction. And such is the incredible profundity of this narrative, one that leaves its men dreaming, praying and living under rituals that pay respect to ghosts of their former wives and selves.

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