Ugetsu is Kenji Mizoguchi's retelling of Akinari Ueda's "Tales of a Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain"--a title both stilted and beautiful, like the film's Lady Wakasa, lovely as only an Asian ghost can be, hiding in the woods like a fawn, but still the doom of anyone who gets too close.
Two simple but ambitious men--one a potter who pursues wealth, the other a would-be samurai who seeks glory--endanger their families for the sake of their desires, while ghosts possess and spirits soothe, until ambition is humbled beneath the Buddha’s yearning for a middle path of compassion amidst suffering.
The men in Ugetsu who seek fortune and glory are indeed successful, but of course at a bitter price, paid in a dreamlike marketplace, where Genjuro's babble of commerce is hushed by a beautiful, gliding ghost; and on the battlefield, where the clatter of warfare delivers a general's head to an accidental samurai, Tobei. Their gains and losses, captured by a mist-shrouded camera, provide an illustration of the calm insistence that one must enter another's suffering to end one's own--as well as the other's.
Mizoguchi devotes the middle portion of his film to Genjuro's possession by Lady Wakasa. She is many things, not the least of which is respite from the storms of ambition--as well as its prize: a beautiful, Geisha-like patroness who murmurs love over both Genjuro and his blue-tinged pottery. It is an essay on beauty, love, and delusion. And then Mizoguchi draws us down to the core, as he lingers on the child in the story, Genichi, and the women who suffer, Miyagi and Ohama, whose fates are mirrored by the tale of Lady Wakasa, abandoned as her noble house fell, lost like Miyagi and fallen like Ohama. The challenge is for all of them to accept their true need--to show compassion and thus to love and be loved.
In the West, we had to invent something called "Magic Realism" to introduce the natural and the supernatural to each other so that they could get along and build stories together. Ugetsu reminds us that others have long made room for both, ghosts and potters comfortable with each other, at least for the sake of the story.
NOTE: As I've done before, this is adapted from something I wrote for The Constant Viewer. Just keeping me honest.