The spirit world has been a source of polarizing contention throughout human history. The concepts of “spirits” and “ghosts” evoke multiple emotions, including fear, solace, apprehension, and peace. Certain drastic events in history may be associated with spirits, such as the Salem Witch Trials. Depending upon our beliefs, spirits’ presence and aura may serve to aid us in understanding and solidifying our own individual sense of self, as well as our connections with others and our surrounding environment. The Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life explores this idea, as well as the stunning 1953 Japanese medieval fantasy film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi named “Ugetsu Monogatari”.
The black-and-white film is set in the humble village of Nakanogo, where we follow the story of two couples. Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) create and sell beautiful pottery, supporting themselves and their adorable young son, Genichi (Ikio Sawamura). Tobei (Sakae Ozawa) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) operate a farm, whereby Tobei has immeasurable dreams of becoming a samurai. Amidst their perceived tranquility, there is impending and inevitable chaos in their village created by the army of Shibata Katsuie. This consequentially leads to separation, displacement, and abandonment of responsibilities. Tobei becomes relentless on his quest to become that of an oxymoronic figure who damaged his home and relationship, while Genjuro encounters a beautiful, wealthy woman of seeming nobility in the form of Lady Wasaka (Machiko Kyo).
The English translation of the title is “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”, as the ancient East Asian tales from which the story is based revolves around natural elements forewarning humans of the uncontrollable spiritual forces. The film has a splendid mystical quality reflecting the original tales, supported by smooth transitioning between fantasy and reality and occasional hazy cinematography. Furthermore, fairy tales are often disguised cautionary tales to their readers about indulgence, patriarchy, dishonesty, greed, and inevitable destruction if we become highly swept into an imaginary world at the expense of others’ well-beings. This film effortlessly exemplifies and reinforces these themes, additionally resonating with audiences post-WWII in the aftermath of worldwide exploitation of power. “Ugetsu” is a pertinent reminder that our commitment to family, friends, and our communities is the glue which allows us to remain steadfast in the face of outside challenges which threaten our unique essence.
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