Hungry Ghosts - or Pretas - is a concept closely tied to Buddhism. It means “departed or dead one.” Hungry Ghosts are unfortunate in being reborn into existence with a ceaseless hunger. Ugetsu is a tremendous moral story of two hungry ghosts: Genjuro, a man who stops at nothing to work on his love of pottery and Tobei, a farmer who seeks the valour of a Samurai.
Mizoguchi offers us these two antithetical characters that diverge along their paths. One is so obsessed by his work and art, that he sacrifices everything dear to him to ensure its creation and sale. The other is so obsessed with the recognition and pride that comes with being a Samurai, but isn’t willing to sacrifice anything to achieve the accolades that come with it.
When war breaks out in their village, they find themselves and their loved ones at risk. Genjuro and Tobei take their families away to safety. The thought of traveling to the closest city to sell their goods emerges from the exile. It’s seemingly their only attempt at salvaging any success from the unfortunate circumstances. So it’s somewhat easy to understand why Genjuro would leave his family at shore in order to seek more for them.
But that’s where the sympathy for Genjuro ends. There’s an unrelenting descent into success and the seduction of the material world that renders Genjuro’s world more and more dreamlike with each passing scene. No other film has slowly walked down the staircase from reality into illusion quite so subtlety and with such horror.
Many filmmakers these days jump from someone sleeping and then into a dream or a music cue hits and suddenly the characters are somewhere fantastical. But with Mizoguchi, the transformation from reality to the unknown is so graceful and soothing, you nearly can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. And that’s the point.
The power of the odyssey into the dream in Ugetsu is where its true strength lies. It’s easy to tell the story of the dream, but to delicately lead the viewer into that place without them even knowing that they’ve departed is something short of a miracle.
When Genjuro arrives to the city, he sells beautiful bowls to the nobility of Japan, but they’re empty. There’s nothing to fill them with. Tobei uses money to don the wardrobe of a skilled Samurai, but behind the stories of his heroicism, there’s a liturgy of banal and lifeless philosophies about what makes a true hero.
These characters slowly starve so much for the truth and spiritual nourishment that they abandon everything in their hunger for something outside of their souls.
What good is a bowl without the food of the soul to fill it with? Or worse, what good is a bowl of food without people to share it with? What good is the the shell of a Samurai without the fighting strength and willpower within it? Ugetsu tests these realms of the material world in a way very few stories do.
It makes sense that this came towards the end of Mizoguchi’s career. It plays like a warning of many things, but I think mostly of losing sight of what you’re working towards and the sacrifices you make along the way.
The gentle spirit of Mizoguchi seems to whisper, “Be gracious for the food you have or you will always be hungry.” Tobei ends up falling from his pride into the depths of shame just as Genjuro inevitably welcomes the company of those whom he has become: phantoms in need of possessing someone or something.
Very few films take on this spiritual importance and even fewer are this haunting.