Explore Japanese Cinema:Ugetsu & The Depiction of Women


"Ugetsu" directed by Kenji Mizoguchi in 1953, is a seminal Japanese film that delves into the themes of feminine power and tragedy. Set against the backdrop of the 16th-century civil war in Japan, the film intricately weaves together the stories of two men who are consumed by their ambitions and desires, ultimately leading to tragic consequences. Within this narrative, Mizoguchi explores the power wielded by women, the allure of the supernatural, and the devastating effects of unchecked desires. Through the tragic narratives of Genjūrō and Tōbei, the film serves as a cautionary tale.

Feminine Power:

"Ugetsu" portrays women as enigmatic figures with a captivating strength that both entices and endangers the male characters. One such character is Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō), a beautiful noblewoman from another world. Lady Wakasa epitomizes feminine power as she effortlessly seduces men, drawing them into a web of desire and illusion. Her allure lies not only in her physical beauty but also in her ability to offer solace, comfort, and companionship. However, her power is a double-edged sword, leading to tragedy for those who succumb to her charms.

Lady Wakasa's servant, also a supernatural being, plays a significant role in manipulating the ambitions of the male characters. She takes advantage of Tōbei (Eitarō Ozawa), the farmer-turned-samurai, by promising him fame and fortune if he aligns himself with Lady Wakasa. This highlights the subtle manipulation and agency possessed by the female characters, using their powers of persuasion to further their agendas.

Tragic Tale:

"Ugetsu" is a tragic tale that explores the consequences of unchecked desires and ambitions. The film follows the parallel stories of Genjūrō (Masayuki Mori), a potter, and Tōbei, as they abandon their wives in search of personal fulfillment. Their pursuit of dreams and ambitions blinds them to the hardships faced by their loved ones, leading to heart-wrenching tragedies.

Genjūrō's pursuit of wealth and success leads him to sacrifice his present life for an illusory world of riches and love. He becomes ensnared by Lady Wakasa's enchanting presence, forsaking his wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), and their family. Genjūrō's obsession with his ambitions blinds him to the dire consequences of his choices, resulting in profound loss and regret.

Similarly, Tōbei's aspirations to become a respected samurai lead him to abandon his wife, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito). However, his dreams of fame and glory turn out to be empty promises, leaving him disillusioned and separated from his loved ones. The tragic outcomes for both Genjūrō and Tōbei serve as cautionary tales about the destructive nature of desires and the sacrifices they demand.

Mizoguchi's Approach:

Kenji Mizoguchi's directorial approach in "Ugetsu" is characterized by his empathetic portrayal of female characters and his nuanced exploration of their agency and power dynamics. He presents women as multidimensional figures who navigate a patriarchal society while still exerting their influence and agency. Mizoguchi's focus on feminine power serves to challenge traditional gender roles and highlight the complex ways in which women shape and impact the lives of those around them.

Visually, Mizoguchi employs techniques such as lighting and shadows to enhance the atmospheric quality of the tragic narrative. The interplay of light and darkness adds depth and symbolism to the film, reflecting the complexities of the character's choices and their consequences. Mizoguchi's meticulous attention to detail long takes, and masterful storytelling contribute to the emotional resonance of the tragic elements, immersing the audience in the profound sorrow and tragedy of the characters' journeys.

Onibaba vs Ugetsu:

A Japanese film that explores similar themes is "Onibaba" (1964), directed by Kaneto Shindo. While there are distinct differences between "Ugetsu" and "Onibaba," both films delve into the complexities of feminine power and the tragic consequences that arise from uncontrolled desires.

In "Onibaba," the story is set during a tumultuous period in medieval Japan. It revolves around two women, a mother-in-law (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura), who live in a desolate swamp near a battlefield. To survive, they kill wounded samurai and sell their armor. The arrival of a young soldier, Hachi (Kei Sato), disrupts their routine and leads to a series of events that unravel their lives.

Like "Ugetsu," "Onibaba" highlights the power women can wield in dire circumstances. The mother-in-law is portrayed as a strong and manipulative figure who controls and guides her daughter-in-law. She takes advantage of her youthful beauty to lure and seduce the samurai before killing them. This demonstrates the dark and alluring aspects of feminine power, where women exploit their sexuality to manipulate and gain control over men.

Both films showcase the tragic consequences that befall the characters due to their desires and actions. In "Onibaba," the daughter-in-law becomes infatuated with Hachi, which strains her relationship with her mother-in-law. The introduction of jealousy and betrayal sets off a chain of events that leads to devastating outcomes for all the characters involved. The film delves into themes of guilt, remorse, and the destructive power of desires, ultimately highlighting the tragic repercussions of succumbing to base instincts.

In terms of style, "Onibaba" contrasts with "Ugetsu" as it has a more raw and gritty aesthetic. It captures the swamp's desolation and the characters' intense emotions through its stark black-and-white cinematography. The film creates a haunting atmosphere, emphasizing human desires' darkness, and primal nature.

While both "Ugetsu" and "Onibaba" tackle similar themes, they do so in distinct ways. "Ugetsu" incorporates elements of the supernatural and the blurring of dreams and reality, creating a more ethereal and atmospheric experience. On the other hand, "Onibaba" takes a more visceral approach, emphasizing the primal instincts and harsh realities of survival. Despite these differences, both films explore feminine power and tragic narratives, delving into the complexities of human desires and their consequences.

Lady Wakas vs Mother-in-law


Lady Wakasa intends to entice and seduce men, drawing them into her illusory world. Her ultimate goal is to fulfill her desires and find companionship. She presents herself as a beautiful and alluring figure, using her supernatural powers and feminine charms to manipulate the male characters and lead them astray.

The mother-in-law's intention in "Onibaba" is driven by survival. She and her daughter-in-law live in a desolate swamp during a time of war, resorting to killing and selling the armor of samurai for sustenance. Her primary focus is ensuring their survival and protecting themselves from the harsh realities of their environment.


Lady Wakasa employs a seductive approach, playing upon the desires and vulnerabilities of men. She offers solace, comfort, and love to those who succumb to her allure. Lady Wakasa's approach revolves around creating a sense of fantasy and illusion, blurring the lines between dreams and reality. By presenting herself as an irresistible object of desire, she leads the male characters toward tragic consequences.

The mother-in-law adopts a pragmatic and ruthless approach to survival. She is resourceful, cunning, and willing to go to great lengths to secure their well-being. Her actions are rooted in a harsh reality where survival is paramount. The mother-in-law's approach involves manipulating her daughter-in-law and exploiting their surroundings to meet their basic needs.


Lady Wakasa's character can be seen as a manifestation of the dangers of lust and the allure of the supernatural. She represents the temptation that can lead individuals astray, blinding them to the realities of their actions. Lady Wakasa's intentions and approach reflect the underlying theme of the film, which explores the consequences of pursuing unattainable dreams and desires.

The mother-in-law's character is a product of the brutal circumstances they find themselves in. Her intentions and approach are driven by the need to survive in a harsh and unforgiving world. Unlike Lady Wakasa, the mother-in-law's actions stem from a place of necessity rather than supernatural allure. Her character explores the moral complexities of survival and the lengths individuals may go to when faced with extreme circumstances.

Kenji Mizoguchi: By Boat in the Moonlight

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