Theatrical Transcendence: Mizoguchi, Noh Theatre and Film Style

As difficult as it undoubtedly is to recover the interpretations of a native audience of the mid-twentieth century, it is crucial to attempt to excavate the cultural tasks which popular cinema performs at the time in which it was made. Avoiding such endeavours has the possibility to limit us to a remote and only partial understanding of a film’s cultural significance. The interpretation of more obscure traditional topoi rooted deep within the culture is challenging but vital to our task. With such ideas in mind, this article will explore the relationship between traditional Japanese theatre and the cinema. Focusing on two films by director Kenji Mizoguchi, Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), and Uwasa no Onna (1954), the article will highlight the methods that the director uses to inform his audience, both emotionally and spiritually.

Initially, the two films seem remarkably different. Ugetsu is set during the war-torn Sengoku period (1467-1600) and is essentially two stories; one a period drama, and the other an erotic supernatural tale. In contrast, Uwasa no Onna is a contemporary family melodrama where, unlike Ugetsu, sexual desire is expressed through the confined strictures and claustrophobic setting of post-war Japanese society. However, despite these unmistakeable differences, there still exists a strong bond between the films through their substantial reliance on traditional Japanese motifs. This is seen most notably through the director’s use of noh theatre as both a stylistic and narrative device, employed to prompt a specific reaction from his audience.

Mizoguchi utilised the many different forms of Japanese theatre throughout his career and with this in mind, this work will first explore Mizoguchi’s mixture of these theatrical influences during his early career. The article will then proceed to discuss how, in these two films specifically, the director uses both the style and emotional feeling of noh, to promote deep cultural resonance.

Theatrical Background

Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi began his career in the 1920s. As cinema began to gain in popularity with the people, it was shadowed by rather heated discourse about its role in society. The cinema had opened debate about theatrical tradition and modernity, Japanese essentialism and western influence, dramatic artifice, and screen realism. Mizoguchi’s output in the 1920s reflected these ideas, with his films being eclectic in both style and narrative as he, like many other directors, plundered both Western and Japanese artistic heritage. Among the eleven films Mizoguchi completed in his debut year, were film adaptations of western literature such as Maurice le Blanc’s 813 (813: The Adventures of Arsène Lupin, 1923), Jack Boyle’s The Night (Yoru, 1923) and Hoffman’s Fraulein von Scuderi (Chi to Rei, 1923). In terms of traditional Japanese adaptation, he reworked the noh play Dojoji as Joen no Chimata (City of Desire, 1923), a story based on Anchin, Kiyohime Densetsu (The Legend of the Monk and Princess Kiyo), which had appeared in several stories dating back to the eighth century. Not only did he recourse to adapting well known theatrical stories, he also created works set in or around theatres which included protagonists who were actors or performers. Although many of these early works are non-extant, contemporary articles and previous scholarship, particularly that by Dudley and Paul Andrew (1981), and Keiko McDonald (1984), reveal that these themes are prevalent in a number of these films: For example, Kyokubadan no Joo (Queen of the Circus, 1924) which is set in a cosmopolitan circus, or Kyoren no Onna Shisho (The Passion of a Woman Teacher, 1926) with Sakai Yoneko playing the role of a drama teacher. He also adapted a number of shimpa melodramas including arguably his finest silent film, Taki no Shiraito (1933) (fig. 1). Despite the various Japanese and International sources which Mizoguchi used during this early period, the influence of the theatre was a constant that often informed his work. Such influences can manifest stylistically as in Ugetsu Monogatari (1953); for comic relief, Naniwa Eregi (1936); as social milieu, Zangiku Monogatari (1939) (see Spicer, 2016); or, as we shall examine later, as a moment of heartbreak or revelation.

Fig. 1: Taki no Shirato, one of Mizoguchi’s finest silent films.

So, with this in mind, let us explore further, two of Mizoguchi’s later works, Ugetsu Monogatari, and Uwasa no Onna. It is with these two pictures that the director harnesses the emotion, spirituality, and aesthetic that noh theatre carries. Both analyses will proceed by first contextualising, then exploring in more detail the methods that Mizoguchi employs. These methods serve to narrow the artistic distance between theatre and cinema by using both cinematic and theatrical forms to stunning, devastating, effect.

Ugetsu Monogatari

Mizoguchi’s 1953 masterpiece Ugetsu Monogatari owes as much to the theatrical traditions of noh as it does to the Sengoku period in which it is set. This period is historically important as it marks a time when Japan fell into a state of civil war. Although a time of conflict, Sengoku is also known for its great artistic achievements and is recognised by its own name, the Higashiyama Age. It is during this period where noh theatre found its cultural position; it performed a ceremonial function for the military classes and was strongly encouraged by the aristocracy and the Shogun himself. There are strong reminders of this in Ugetsu: the craft of potter, Genjuro (Mori Masayuki), and the dance of Lady Wakasa (Kyo Machiko), which are portrayed against a backdrop of desolate, war-ravaged landscapes. Catherine Russell highlights the polemic between setting and character, suggesting that:

The peasants’ pot making … is represented as a more “sincere” craft than the classical arts associated with the aristocratic Lady Wakasa. In 1952 Japan, kokugaku [nativism] is for Mizoguchi a non-imperialist, pacifist mode of traditionalism through which “Japaneseness” might be resurrected after its censorship during the Occupation period.

In Dissanayake, 1993, p.148.

Ugetsu Monogatari is divided into two distinct parts. The first concentrates on two principal couples, Ohama (Mito Mitsuko) and her husband Tobei (Ozawa Sakae), and Genjuro and his wife Miyagi (Tanaka Kinuyo) (fig. 2). Genjuro is primarily a farmer, but runs a side business creating pottery, in an attempt to support his wife and small child. Tobei is an aspiring samurai whose dreams are scoffed at by Ohama. Although the men are similar characters – both being dreamers – it is the contrast between the women that fascinates as the strong Ohama and the dutiful but stoic Miyagi, both wish the same from their men. This segment of the film is a dark period tale depicting a country ravaged by civil war and the couple’s village overrun by soldiers. Because of the lack of opportunities within his village, to attempt to raise money Genjuro and Tobei travel to a market in Nagahama to sell Genjuro’s pottery. However, upon their arrival, the film takes a distinct and unexpected turn. With a cinematic sleight of hand, Mizoguchi transforms the whole essence of the film in one scene.

Fig. 2: From Left to Right: Tobei, Ohama, Genjuro and Miyagi.

The camera frames the market from a high angle before panning left and slowly moving forward, into the crowds where the villagers are buying and trading (fig. 3). As we make our way through the bustle, Genjuro is busy selling his wares when from a distance, we see a woman approaching who, when compared to the villagers, is markedly different. Lady Wakasa is purposeful, graceful and noble in both movement and manner. Even before she speaks a Japanese audience would recognise her as an otherworldly, mystical figure. Her demeanour and deportment indicate something more than social status, and her measured, purposeful movement is reminiscent of the noh actor, moving into the scene. She approaches Genjuro’s stall with her nurse Ukon (Mori Kikue), at her side, matching her step for step. Here, noh is again acknowledged as it is almost as if the shite-kata (the masked principal in a noh performance) has entered the stage, shadowed by their stage attendant (fig. 4).

Fig. 3: Opening shot from the Nagahama market scene.
Fig. 4: Wakasa enters the ‘stage’.

Although prior to this revelatory scene there is a distinct absence of a visual noh aesthetic, in the first part of the film the introductory music is evocative of its style. To a Japanese audience the opening title sequence would have conjured the spirit of noh. This would, however, be misleading as any notions that the story would be theatrical, are quickly diminished during the opening sequences. Now, with the arrival of Wakasa, this aural reference makes sense. With her introduction, Mizoguchi strikingly re-invokes noh on a visual level. As the second part of the film unfolds there is a cumulative increase in signifiers associated with traditional theatre. This is not accidental and is a crucial element of Mizoguchi’s composition. As Eric Rhode notes, “Mizoguchi depends on the Noh theatre, both for his type of plot and for the style in which he composes his images” (1962, p.99).

The Celestial Goddess

Wakasa represents the intervention of the mysterious. Her kimono, kasa (veiled headwear), beautifully arranged hair, shaved eyebrows and dutiful attendant are all indicative of someone who is not simply out of place socially, but is also otherworldly. Immediately, her presence sparks curiosity. Why is she there? Why is she, a woman of such high status, buying pots in this market? The mystery is heightened as Wakasa’s face remains shrouded by her kasa only glimpsed fleetingly as Ukon orders Genjuro to deliver the pottery she has purchased. After his day’s trading is done, Genjuro looks at a kimono at another stall, thinking of his wife and child whom he has left in war-torn Omi. However, his thoughts of home are abruptly broken as he is confronted again by Wakasa and Ukon, who offer to accompany him back to Kutsuki Manor. The noh rhetoric here is recognised in the way in which Genjuro is summoned to follow them. Mizoguchi uses typical tropes to garner an emotional response to this spiritual calling. The unveiling of Wakasa’s face, for example, is performed ceremonially as it would be in noh theatre. Wakasa’s facial appearance is strikingly similar to deigan, a noh mask, that has been described by noted actor Udaka Michishige, as, “an attractive woman stifling resentment, a complex mixture of insane jealousy and the struggle to contain this all-consuming emotion … of noble character, imbued with a spectral aura” (2015, p.152) (fig. 5). The connotations are all important here. Washburn notes that, “We discover the true identity or purpose of the shite during his/her exposition … Once the true identity of the shite has been learned, the true form of the shite is also revealed” (1990, p.44). Thus as Wakasa reveals her face her identity is confirmed and, with it, the implicit danger that Genjuro now finds himself in (fig. 6). Lamarque explains:

Fig. 5: A Daigan mask on display at the Tokyo National Museum (author’s own image).
Fig. 6: As Wakasa reveals herself, we are aware of the danger of Genjuro’s situation.

The concentration of focus in a performance on the abstracted inner spirit of a character, centered on one poignant incident, encourages not a cognitive but an effective response. The shite’s use of mask and stylized gesture keeps the audience from being distracted by a realistic surface and guides the imagination away from mere factual reconstruction. The personality of actor and character must be invisible. In this way, human interest and attention are channelled directly into the emotional core.

1989, p.165.

There are also familiar noh signifiers seen within the mise en scène upon Genjuro’s arrival at Kutsuki Manor. He is led into the manor by Ukon through what is reminiscent of a hashigakari, a walkway which leads onto the stage. Although it appears that Genjuro is simply led through a corridor into the manor, the actual meaning is much more sinister and reveals itself as a most poignant event. Mizoguchi’s use of this hashigakari is inspired directly by its form and meaning within both noh theatre and Japanese culture generally. The hashigakari has two purposes and characters that enter the stage through it can do so in two ways. The first is by using the walkway to portray a long journey, to indicate that time has passed whilst on this journey, usually represented by walking slowly. The second, and most important in the context of the film is the portrayal of the hashigakari as a bridge between the mortal world and that of the dead, and of spirits, ghosts, or demons. The theme of spirituality relates heavily to noh drama. Sato notes that, “ghosts are one of the most important topics in Japanese traditional drama. Especially in noh, the majority of the better works have a ghost meeting a traveller of this world and recounting his life and death with regret” (in McDonald, 1993, p.163). In this way, Mizoguchi purposefully and methodically includes noh elements in Ugetsu to evoke these spiritual associations.

A Cultural Mise en Scène

There are other emblematic signifiers in this scene also. In noh theatre three matsu trees are spaced evenly along the hashigakari. At these positions the performer will stop to deliver lines or to perform actions. Although in Ugetsu these matsu trees are not physically present, the director has the manor’s servants, like stage attendants, light three candles at the positions where the matsu would stand. Also, in the noh theatre the performers, musicians and attendants are arranged so that every stage is the same, and there will always be a painting of a matsu tree on the kagami ita, a wooden board at the back of the main stage. The roots of this tradition relate back to a performance at Nara’s Kasuga Shrine during the Nara period (710-794 AD). Noh was always performed outdoors and during this particular piece Kasuga Myojin, a deity who was said to be the protector of the Fujiwara and Nakatomi clans, descended into a matsu tree during the performance. Therefore, the painting exists to welcome his spirit. This is also why noh actors rehearse separately, so as not to invoke the spirit during rehearsals. Noted nohgaku artist Kinue Oshima explains further:

In noh, the matsu tree symbolises the spirit of traditional arts that came before. The matsu is a tree which attracts sprits, so that gods can descend to a physical space. It is not the only object of this kind, but it is the most well-known. You perform facing the tree. Of course, as you know, at the back of the stage we have a painting of a matsu, but this is supposed to be a reflection. Originally the matsu tree was in front of the Noh stage, where the audience sit today. The performers would always keep in mind that they sing or dance for the matsu tree, for the god, spirits or demon, that descends into the tree … That is how we always think when performing. And also, the spoken sound of the word ‘matsu’ has a double meaning in Japanese; one is of course matsu as in tree and the other is ‘wait’. So, we are waiting for something that belongs to another world to materialise.

Personal communication, September 19, 2010.

Significantly, both Genjuro and Ukon pause at the entrance of the manor to remove their shoes. Although not present on the rear wall, a matsu tree is placed prominently by Mizoguchi at the front right of the shot.  As Genjuro enters this potent mise en scène the ominous nature of his situation is confirmed (fig. 7). Genjuro is now leaving behind his material past and entering another world, the world of spirits. The tree which is conventionally represented only in a painting, here, takes on a malevolent, living form. Of this inclusion, Oshima has no doubt that Mizoguchi was reliant upon distinctly cultural and spiritual motifs:

Fig. 7: The matsu tree takes on a malevolent, living form.

There is definitely an intention here. I don’t know if it is the reflection of the matsu tree on a noh stage, but considering what the matsu represents, and the spirituality which exists on a noh stage, I would say that the matsu is acting as a conduit to allow a connection with the spiritual world.

Personal communication, September 19, 2010.

Wakasa is presented unlike any other character in the film. Apart from her stylised costume and otherworldly demeanour, she is also overtly sexual; siren-like, she entices Genjuro into her inner-sanctum. Praising the craftsmanship of his pottery-ware, she begins an elaborate seduction, displaying a submissive tendency whilst at the same time remaining in control; she is playing a game and Genjuro, blinded by her beauty, is oblivious to this. Wakasa then dances for Genjuro, slowly and sensuously (fig. 8). The song that she chants tells of the transience of mortal things and how the living body fades. This performance is heightened dramatically as darkness descends and we are confronted with a close-up of a samurai helmet. A deeper male voice joins in the chant in a tone of doom-laden foreboding.  The descent of the spirit is confirmed in the form of Wakasa’s father, who announces his presence not through the beauty of the matsu tree but through an image of violence, a samurai helmet. Such subversion is also witnessed in the following scene. After Wakasa bathes Genjuro, the couple are laying together by Biwa Lake. Central in this extraordinarily deep shot are the inclusion of three bare and imposing trees (fig. 9). Serper notes the importance of the mise en scène here in its relationship to noh:

Fig. 8: Wakasa dancing for Genjuro.
Fig. 9: Creating a distinct contrast between reality and fantasy.

The bare trees featured in the background in Ugetsu Monogatari give the impression of a desolate and barren landscape. This is in contrast to the matsu tree with its shaped branches signifying long life and celebration, and which is featured on the Kagami ita in the noh theatre.

2016, p.233.

Mizoguchi’s intention here is to create a distinct contrast between reality and fantasy, life and the after-life. The scene highlights the perilous situation in which Genjuro has found himself. Although unaware that he has been tricked by Wakasa, an audience versed in the visual clues offered would be aware of Genjuro’s fate.

Although we fear for Genjuro, in characteristic fashion, Mizoguchi resists any alignment with character viewpoint; we witness Genjuro’s entrapment through Mizoguchi’s detached perspective and the subdued lighting. The scenes are as bewildering to us as they are to Genjuro. As a viewer it is difficult to become a part of the world, even during these sequences, such is the distance of Mizoguchi’s camera. However, again the uncomfortable feeling of helplessness felt through Genjuro and the fact that he is indeed alone in the spirit world only serves to heighten the anxiety felt by the spectator. During these transformatory sequences, Mizoguchi deploys a range of specific theatrical signifiers in richly suggestive ways, conveying to a Japanese audience familiar with such traditions the full resonance of the mythical associations and their spiritual potency. At the film’s climax the malevolence of the spirit world is laid to rest by the priest who warns Genjuro of Wakasa’s intention to take his life. He marks his body with sutras as a protection against her (fig. 10). As Jones relates, in noh theatre, “A difficulty is resolved, a sin is atoned for, a harmony is restored usually by the sympathetic intervention of a Buddhist priest” (1966, p.57). With her hold over him broken, Genjuro returns home only to discover his that his wife has been murdered by soldiers passing in search of food. His now empty house is haunted by her ghostly presence.

Fig. 10: As protection against Wakasa, a priest marks Genjuro with sutras.

As we have discussed, Ugetsu Monogatari is reliant upon the aural, visual and spiritual elements of theatre to invoke an emotional response from an audience. These deeply cultural tropes ensure that a contemporary audience are able to understand the implications of such potent cultural messages. However, it is not just these elements of noh that Mizoguchi subscribes to, he also uses the form to assist with advancing narrative, and revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of his characters. Nowhere is this seen to such devastating effect as during the theatre scene in Uwasa no Onna.

Uwasa no Onna

Mizoguchi’s follow up film Uwasa no Onna is remarkably different in terms of setting and style. The drama takes place in a Japan where modernity and tradition, represented not only through the mise en scène but also through the characters, sit uncomfortably side-by-side. This friction is exacerbated through the film’s lead character Hatsuko (Tanaka Kinuyo), a lonely woman in search of love and companionship with the family doctor Matoba (Otani Tomoemon). The film, which is often ignored in favour of the more well-known Mizoguchi works of the period, is a complex melodrama, which reaches its apotheosis during one excruciating scene. Set in a noh theatre, we witness a moment of peripeteia as Hatsuko finally realises the dire situation that she finds herself in. Mizoguchi relies on an audience’s knowledge of noh’s cultural sensibilities, which help to provide an emotional counterpoint to the human drama. We will go on to analyse a key scene set in a theatre, but first, let us contextualise the scene.

Hatsuko is the okami (mistress) of Izutsuya, a brothel in the Shimabara district of Kyoto which had been run by her family for generations (the status of the Izutsuya is both complex and unusual as it is not strictly an okiya (geisha house), or an ochaya (tea-house) – for an excellent and detailed explanation, see Le Fanu (2005, p.93)). Her daughter Yukiko (Kuga Yoshiko) was in Tokyo, but is brought home after a failed relationship and apparent suicide attempt.  Hatsuko requests that her daughter is examined by the novice but trusted Dr. Matoba, who, despite questions, gets very little information from Yukiko. In a later conversation between Matoba and Yukiko we learn that the reason behind her relationship breakdown was due to her connection with Izutsuya and the activities therein. When Matoba informs Hatsuko about this, she is both shocked and saddened that her business and the profession of her recent ancestors have caused these problems for Yukiko. Hoping to finance a local practice for Dr. Matoba, it is revealed that Hatsuko has been saving money to buy the surgery and become his wife. Problems begin to occur however as Hatsuko already has a suitor, Harada (Shindo Eitaro). However, for Hatsuko a marriage to Harada is not a possibility as we witness devotion and at times blind obsession with Matoba. The following scene adds to this uncomfortable element of the picture.

Theatrical Transcendence

Upon receiving tickets to a noh performance from one of her patrons, Hatsuko, Matoba and Yukiko attend the theatre along with many of the customers from Izutsuya. Throughout the film, Matoba and Yukiko have become emotionally closer. Mizoguchi represents this in an understated manner. Although at this point Hatsuko is still oblivious to the feelings between the two, in a familiar example of dramatic irony, the audience is privileged in already knowing, hoping she will not discover their growing relationship. Mizoguchi here utilises the location for a moment of revelation and heartbreak to compose one of the most powerfully intense moments in any of his pictures.

At the noh theatre the first words sung by the performers on stage are: “My tears flow when I think of the sadness in this world. In the dark waters near the edge of the marsh I can see reflected the lights of the fireflies. I cannot pledge myself to you as a life together is not possible for us”. At the last of these words, the camera pans from the stage across the audience to Hatsuko who is sitting alone in the wings of the theatre (fig. 11). As we watch her, the performer’s words become a narrative commentary on her life. She casts a concerned glance over her shoulder to where Yukiko and Matoba’s zabuton (floor cushions) are vacant, with a theatre programme discarded on each. Hatsuko herself leaves and as she enters the foyer, she hears the pair discussing a move to Tokyo, realising that her proposed plans for a clinic for Matoba have been rejected in this abrupt volte face (fig. 12).  He reveals, “I’ve changed my mind, I want to finish my research thesis. There would be more possibilities for me if I had a doctorate”. Yukiko replies: “I’d definitely go to Tokyo if you were going to be there”.

Fig. 11: Hatsuko realises she is alone in the theatre.
Fig. 12: Dr Matoba and Yukiko discuss moving to Tokyo together while Hatsuko listens on unseen.

This scene is uncomfortable for three reasons. First, Tanaka does not speak; her desperation is transmitted through her facial expression and body movements; we almost see her soul drain from her body. It is an exquisite piece of acting captured by the camera which remains withdrawn at a discreet distance from both the couple and Hatsuko. As she sits on a chair behind a wall to continue her eavesdropping, the realisation strikes her that not only is this a rejection from her lover, but that she is also losing him to her daughter (fig. 13). Second, the scene is accompanied by the diegetic sound of the noh music from the play taking place in the main theatre. As Yukiko and Matoba’s conversation continues the music speeds up to match perfectly the movement of Tanaka, who shifts uncomfortably, pondering a way to resolve this desperate situation. Without realising, she has become a part of the play she has come to see – a helpless victim of the deceit which is being played out before her.

Fig. 13: Mizoguchi resists close-ups, relying on withdrawn, discreet camera-work.

Third, because of where the camera is positioned no moral judgement is made of Hatsuko’s eavesdropping, since by implication the audience is equally guilty. Indeed, maybe the audience feels culpable because we are witnesses to Hatsuko’s heartbreak as well as Matoba’s plan (fig. 14). As the conversation ends so does the noh play, and the applause acts as an ironic commentary which brings Hatsuko back to reality. Mizoguchi pursues the emotion of this scene to an almost unbearable pitch. There is a pathos in Hatsuko’s self-realisation. As the intermission finishes, the protagonists re-enter the theatre where the kyōgen (comic relief which is played out in the interval of the main noh performance) is playing. In this scene we witness the performance of Makura Monogurui (Pillow Mania). Interestingly, the most recognised performance of this play involves an old man who has fallen in love with a younger woman. He is the object of ridicule by his grandsons for his emotions towards her. Mizoguchi subverts the play cruelly as the old man is replaced by an old woman played by famous kyōgen actor Shigeyama Sengoro. The comic dialogue on stage acts as a bitter commentary for Hatsuko’s situation. Two young men are discussing a conversation that had been conducted with an old woman:

Fig. 14: As we listen to Matoba’s plan, we are sole witnesses to Hatsuko’s heartbreak.

“Listen to me, did the old woman ask you what it was like to be in love?”

“Yes she did indeed ask me that but I didn’t know if she was being serious.”

“It would certainly provide her with comfort in her old age if she were to fall in love.”

“How did you respond to her?”

“I told her that I was too young to know.”

“It must be love!”

Already the relationship between the old woman of the play and Hatsuko is established. Hatsuko’s situation is being played out comically, her personal thoughts revealed. Is her love for Matoba genuine or is it the fear of being lonely which encourages such feelings?

The image of a decrepit old woman then appears on the hashigakari and is greeted by laughter from the audience (fig. 15). This image is steeped in noh’s cultural sensibilities. Carolyn Haynes notes that in traditional performances of Makura Monogurui “the old man resembles the kyōjo, women deranged by longing for lost children or lovers” (1984, pp.261-262). Mizoguchi realises the deep significance of the original meaning. Here, the old woman in the kyōgen has one kimono sleeve displaced and is carrying a bamboo branch. These elements act as a crucial signifier within the film’s context. Discussing parody within the original kyōgen performance, Haynes goes on to explain:

Fig. 15: An old and love-torn old woman appears on the hashigakari to laughter from the audience.

One sleeve of his outer robe is slipped off his shoulder and he carries a branch of bamboo. The branch is reminiscent of ancient shamanic traditions, where it served as the vehicle through which spirits descended to possess a medium. It remains in noh to indicate the possessed or obsessed nature of a woman crazed by grief.

1984, p.262.

As the old woman slowly enters the stage, the young men burst into song, not just teasing the old woman of the play, but by implication, also Hatsuko. The old woman then speaks words that Hatsuko does not want to hear: “I’m so ashamed, I’m so ashamed. Such feelings of love are fine when you are nineteen or twenty years of age, but when you’re an old woman of sixty like I am then it’s just shameful.” The camera cruelly cuts back to Hatsuko, Yukiko and Matoba, with the former looking horrified. What is being expressed on the stage is a lampooning of her reality.  She shifts uncomfortably, solemnly looking on whilst the couple are laughing at the old woman (fig. 16). However the old woman then begins to sing and Hatsuko begins to realise the uncomfortable truth of her situation: “One tried to sleep but all one can do is toss and turn at night. One cannot deny love, there is nothing one can do. It is the fault of love. One can find no rest, no rest at all. All there is, is madness“. The song ends and the two male actors run from the woman exclaiming: “Look over there, it’s the old woman in the throes of madness!” The audience cry out with laughter as Mizoguchi cuts back to Hatsuko. Looking drained and desperate (fig. 17), she stands up and walks out of the theatre and into the foyer. Ueno remarks on how Mizoguchi uses the recognisable elements of human frailty and theatrical discourse to represent the plight of Hatsuko. In a contemporary review of the film, Ueno notes:

Fig. 16: The noh play prompts Hatsuko to realise the truth about her situation.
Fig. 17: The audience cry with laughter at the play, as Mizoguchi cuts back to an emotionally distraught Hatsuko.

The portrayal of the ugliness of love in old age reveals a true part of human nature. The scene at the Noh theatre, where the mother’s heart was harshly hit by the kyōgen played in front of her is quite outstanding.

1954, p.52.

The scene is both desperate and chilling; the viewer is witness to Hatsuko’s realisation of what is playing out around her; she has indeed become the old woman of the play, desperate for attention, companionship and love. This emotional charge is exacerbated because it takes place in the theatre, and the way that Mizoguchi shoots the scene and tells the story highlights a dramatic irony, encouraging pity from the audience. There is however, no such sentiment from the director, and all that this scene serves to do is to hurry Hatsuko into obtaining the money for Matoba’s clinic. A warning has been served however, and the method in which it was delivered is dramatic and desperate. Mizoguchi again, as in Ugetsu, is manipulating both feeling and the familiar to convey to a Japanese audience a stark message through one of the most recognised theatrical forms.


Mizoguchi manipulated theatrical elements not just for stylistic but also for narrative purposes. As noh is representative of Japanese culture, so its people are aware of the spirituality that surrounds it and a feeling exists for noh which cannot be recreated by an audience that does not recognise its value. As we have discussed, there are other Mizoguchi pictures which also use a theatrical aesthetic, and although the deployment of such devices can differ from kabuki to western melodrama, their use allows the director a strong cultural foundation on which to build his work.

Such devices allow a distortion of both character expectations and narrative, and this is clearly witnessed in Ugetsu Monogatari. Once Lady Wakasa is introduced, an historical melodrama becomes an erotic ghost story, replacing war torn Japan with the world of spirits and demons. To achieve this effectively, Mizoguchi relies on noh theatre, not merely to promote a level of fantasy and otherworldliness, but also to convey a feeling which could only be recognised by those versed in its sensibilities. Likewise, Uwasa no Onna also relies on an audience’s recognition of traditional theatre, but on this occasion not through style but through the recognition of a well-known kyōgen, Makura Monogurui. As the action takes place on the stage, the narrative transcends the boundaries of theatre and serves as a commentary on the life of Hatsuko.

Mizoguchi removes the spiritual distance between the fantasy of the theatre and the reality of his characters. By using noh theatre, he is able to provoke a deep cultural response which can only be recognised by those versed in its sensibilities.

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This work is supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Number 17K02399.


  • 813: The Adventures of Arsène Lupin (1923), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Chi to Rei (1923), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Joen no Chimata (1923), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Kyokubadan no Joo (1924), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Kyoren no Onna Shisho (1926), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Naniwa Eregi (1936), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Taki no Shiraito (1933), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Ugetsu monogatari (1953), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Uwasa na Onna (1954), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Yoru (1923), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Zangiku Monogatari (1939), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi


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