Post-war Japanese cinema is noted generally for its prolific output and creative vision, and specifically for the way in which it obliquely but unmistakably dealt with the recent military cataclysm. Mizoguchi’s stylistic gem predates Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai by a year and also recasts modern Japan’s difficult identity crisis in the setting of the war-torn 16th century.
The story centers around the families of two men bent on lifting themselves out of poverty and obscurity, one essentially a war profiteer and the other one on a foolish quest to become a samurai. The film opens with Genjuro, a potter, convinced that only money can bring happiness, and so the risks associated with carrying on his trade in a conflict zone are invisible to him. Tobei, a poor neighbor, assists him for a cut of the profits, but his real goal is to gain a fortune as a man of war. Both men fail to heed the warnings of their sensible wives, which seem like prudent advice for anyone with a gambling problem. The female element, unable to reign in male ambition, disappears briefly and returns in the form of Machiko Kyō (of Rashomon fame), portraying an otherworldly temptress who tests the limits of Genjuro’s depravity.
The scene in which both couples take a boat laden with pottery across a misty lake is reminiscent of the river Styx of Greek mythology. The entire film pivots on this penumbral boundary between the real and the imagined. In the former, pragmatism, caution, and devotion to home life are the basis for happiness, while the latter can, at best, offer fleeting thrills devoid of substance. These lessons may seem a bit trite to contemporary viewers, but Mizoguchi’s slow pacing of scenes in the dream-world of ghosts and visions creates a psychic distance that jolts us when we must inevitably return to reality.