Ugetsu, Intertextuality, and the Western Spectator

I want to start off by taking what may be a radical position on how I am conceptualizing film or really any media text.  I’m going to take the position of stripping these texts of their accoutrements, designer labels like “entertainment” versus “new” or “high culture” versus “low culture,” and instead I am going to focus on an underlying genetic structure: the text as an information source, whereby the information could be put to any use the user requires of it.  With that being said (and understanding I may have to defend, amend, and possibly sublate my position), I am interested in how the user of the text (in this case, the spectator of the film) understands and uses the text.

I state all of this in order to interrogate how the Western spectator may understand the information presented in a text like Ugetsu, which relies on Japanese conventions and intertexuality in creating the narrative and the structure of the portrayal.

Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is based on two kaidanshu stories from Ueda Akinari’s Ugetsu monogatari (Tale of the Rain and Moon, 1776 CE).  A kaidanshu is a ghost story that tells a Buddhist moral, involving ghosts enacting karmic vengeance for misdeeds, where the ghosts are typically women or servants who were powerless in real life.[1]  As Mizoguchi adapted Akinari, Akinari adapted his stories from earlier Buddhist sources.[2]  The themes of the film regarding greed, karmic retribution, the intangibility of memory, and the influence of the dead on the living are integral components to Buddhist mythology.[3]  Not only are the themes, and thus narrative information, adaptations and co-optations of Buddhist texts, but Mizoguchi’s use of perspective and long shots has been compared to Japanese picture scrolls.[4]  In his attempt to frame 16th century Japan, to allow modern audiences to understand this portrayal, Mizoguchi relied on conventions from surrounding and perhaps more contemporary texts to structure guiding information; he provided cultural guideposts through his intertextual approach.

However, while the narrative and structural information of the 1953 film was crafted from the conventions of Japanese culture, in the hope that it would help Japanese spectators better understand the information, Western spectators may not have had this cultural experience.  Japanese spectators may have engaged with the text with background information to assist in their understanding of the narrative information, such as foreshadowing of what to expect or how to handle any questions that arise when viewing the film.  In essence, one would expect Japanese users of this text, due to its intertextuality, to have an easier time of understanding the text.

But is it really the case that the Western user would have a harder time understanding the film’s information than the Japanese viewer?  The argument could be made that in the time immediately preceding World War II, when perhaps Japanese culture was not quite so diffused into Western culture, that this would be the case.  Even so, today’s modern audience may then be expected to better understand the information, and this can be seen in how the print screened in class retained some common Japanese nouns instead of completely translating them into English.  Instead of saying “robe” the subtitles read “kimono;” instead of “warrior,” “samurai”.  These words have become so interwoven into Western lexicon that such a translation is no longer necessary.  Perhaps then the same is true for the visual representation of the narrative information, as well as the narrative itself.  Have we become so much familiar now with Japanese culture that we knew before being told that Lady Wasaka was a ghost?  Or that Miyagi would have to die at the end of the film?

Perhaps cultural diversity has saturated our understanding, but we should not neglect the possibility that there was information in the film that could be understood by a variety of spectators from a variety of cultures because of its universal nature.  The themes of the film are by no means strictly limited to being Buddhist — greed is bad is common enough in a variety of religions, if not all of them.  Once we saw this greed taking a hold of Genjuro and Tobei, we knew something bad was going to happen.  Even the true identity of Lady Wakasa could be anticipated due to the striking polarity of the ghost’s abode — the external shots showing a decrepit manor while inside it was resplendent — as well as the downright creepy use of traditional Japanese music for the soundtrack that surrounded Lady Wakasa (not to mention the singing daimyo or samurai lord).  The narrative and structural information here could then cue us in, based on our previous experiences with such information in other texts, as to what to expect as well as how to interpret what was happening.

The only problem remains for the Western spectator is the extent to which the information provided in the film is used to form an overall impression about Japanese culture.  While this may be an issue for the Japanese viewer as well, the Japanese viewer (as far as s/he is an acculturated member of that culture) is expected to have a level of historical, societal and/or cultural knowledge that may help offset or reinforce the information provided by this filmic representation.  Unless a Western spectator was likewise acculturated or had available other sources of information to fulfill the same function, this may be the only representation of Japanese culture (either for the time period or for the folktale) that can be used in order to form an overall schema as to the “truth”.

Often times in studying fans of Japanese anime and manga, Japanese scholars laments over American fans misuse of Japanese words, their misunderstanding of Japanese culture — although it can be equally argued that such exposure prompts the interested to seek further information, thus possibly dispelling any stereotypes that may propagate from relying on only one information source.  However, if the spectator is not prompted to search further, what happens when one representation is their only source of information?

And if this is a problem for Japanese cinema, does it not also pose a quandary for global cinema as a whole — or even at its furthest extension, is this not at the very problematic of representation?  If we treat a text at the basic, genetic level as a source of information for some user/viewer/reader/spectator, then the user’s interpretation and subsequent utilization of that information can be understand as an interaction between the bounded information of that text as well as any peripheral information the user brings to the engagement.  In the case of Ugetsu, we then come to think about how our position in relation to the information provided and the information we already have influences our engagement with the text, how we interpret the text, and ultimately what we think about Japan after this engagement.

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