Spectral Amity – Ugetsu – Kenji Mizoguchi (1953)

The beneficent ghosts exist in, and as, sublime and perfect moments of pleasure and wonder, both as projections of desire but also of remembrances—but displace the other, the so-called true, reality, which is frequently malign and invariably inexorable. It is the contrast between the land of ghosts and the land of humanity that is so forceful and gripping, for in the latter are hunger and destruction and death, and in the former those who beguile and cannot die. Both our ambition and its renunciation lead us to the illusory land of ghosts, with its blandishments, warnings, and understanding of loss—where loss is simply the concurrent manifestation of the misguidance of ambition.

Ugetsu: from the lake sequence.

The land of ghosts arises out of the lake of the mind, the boatman who moves the vessel, travelling from the one shore the other, into the concealing fog where an immediacy of awareness drifts into the encounter that has no time and no actuality but what seems the moment of an actuality. This is how we encounter death. We are the omens of our own understanding, and, in either sphere, disregard them at our peril, or accept that the peril is unavoidable and inescapable.

Director Kenji Mizoguchi collaborated with screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda in adapting the 16th century chronicles of Japanese civil wars into two tales from Akinara Ueda’s 18th century collection of ghost stories, Ugetsu monogatori. Mizoguchi wrote to Yoda: “The feeling of wartime must be apparent in the attitude of every character. The violence of war unleashed by those in power on a pretext of the national good must overwhelm the common people with suffering—moral and physical. Yet the commoners, even under these conditions, must continue to live and eat.”


Ugetsu: from the final flight from the village.

We are our own enemies and our own delusions, our own ghosts in the mortal search for more that, even if attained, cannot be kept. It is because of ourselves that the film holds us without release.

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