I saw two critically acclaimed masterpieces of world cinema recently: Bergman’s Virgin Spring and Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu. I can more or less understand why they make the critics go “ooooo” — they’re beautifully shot, slow-paced, and larded with BIG SPIRITUAL THEMES. Exploitation for the intelligencia, basically.
Another reason for the critical enthusiasm may be that, in a very SNAG way, they are both really, really enthusiastic about patriarchy — and bizarrely nostalgic for feudalism. Virgin Spring is set in medieval Scandinavia; it’s about a virgin who heads off to deliver candles to church. She’s raped and murdered by low-class brigands, who improbably stop in at her parents house, where the virgin’s mother uncovers their misdeed and the virgin’s father kills them, after which he feels guilty. Ugetsu is set in ancient Japan during a war. It follows two brothers; Genjuro, whowants to make a fortune by selling his pots, and Tobei, who wants to become a samurai. In pursuing their dreams they abandon their wives: Tobei’s is raped, and Genjuro’s is murdered.
Both of these movies are built around violence against women. And yet, neither is really about women. Instead, the violence directed at females is part of a story about men. In Virgin Spring, the murder and rape of the daughter is there to enable the father’s spiritual questioning — at the end of the movie he accuses God, and specifically wonders why God has allowed innocence to be murdered . His daughters virginity (as the title indicates) is very much at issue — as if the crime would be less heinous if the rapee had slept around. Furthermore, to expiate his sin of vengeance, the father promises to build a church, after which a spring miraculously wells up from the ground. The girl has been sacrificed to effect a reconciliation between father figures — the actual father and God, who come to a closer understanding over her broken body.
Ugetsu is similarly obsessed with a feudal past. It’s kind of fun to see a movie in which the ambitious capitalist dreamers are so thoroughly done in — Tobei and Genjuro would be the triumphant heroes in any mainstream Western movie. Still, if we chuck capitalism, do we really have to go back to feudalism? The suggestion that any personal ambition automatically leads to insanity seems maybe a little over done — I mean, who can blame these guys for not wanting to be ground-down peasants all their lives? Apparently Mizoguchi can; the punishment for abandoning their feudal lot is an abrogation of their fedual privileges; their wives are dishonored and killed. As I mentioned, Tobei’s wife is raped — and since she’s dishonored, that automatically makes her a whore, so she ends up in a house of prostitution. Genjuro’s wife is killed…but we get to hear her ghostly avatar babbling on about how happy she is that her husband has given up all his ambition and is now just working, working, working, with no expectation of reward or advancement. Oh yeah, and there’s one more women in the story — a noble lady who compliments Genjuro’s pots, throws herself at him, marries him…and then turns out to be an evil ghost spirit! Bad luck there, Genjuro. Talk about the trophy wife from hell.
In other words, the woman in these movies aren’t woman — they’re spiritual chits, pushed around the board to make the mens’ inner lives look more interesting. I can’t help but think that this focus on the tortured-soul-of-the-male-provider is why these movies get to be seen as So So Serious. It makes you understand why Regan and Goneril were so pissed off at dear old egocentric Dad and his simpering enabler, Cordelia.