Scen.: Keiichi Tanaka, Yuzo Kawashima, Shohei Imamura. F.: Kurataro Takamura. M.: Tadashi Nakamura. Scgf.: Kazuhiko Chiba, Kimihiko Nakamura. Mus.: Toshiro Mayuzumi. Ass. regia: Shohei Imamura. Int.: Frankie Sakai (Inokori Saheiji), Sachiko Hidari (Osome), Yoko Minamida (Koharu), Yujiro Ishihara (Shinsaku Takasugi), Izumi Ashikawa (Ohisa), Toshiyuki Ichimura (Mokubei), Nobuo Kaneko (Denbei), Hisano Yamaoka (Otatsu, moglie di Denbei), Yasukiyo Umeno (Tokusaburo, figlio di Otatsu), Masao Oda (Zenpachi). Prod.: Nikkatsu. DCP. D.: 110’. Bn.
Widely regarded as Kawashima’s signature work, this witty, relaxed and irreverent film unfolds in the mid-19th century in and around a brothel in the pleasure quarter of Yukaku in Shinagawa, now a district of Tokyo, then the first of the numerous post towns along the Tokaido highway stretching westwards toward Kyoto. Protagonist Saheiji, played by Kawashima’s regular collaborator, comedian Frankie Sakai, proves unable to pay the bill, and is obliged to pay off his debt to the brothel by working there. Inspired by the tradition of comic storytelling, or rakugo, Kawashima integrates characters from its classic repertoire with elements of the turbulent history of the so-called bakumatsu period, as the Shogunate which had governed Japan for more than 250 years stood on the verge of collapse. As critic Frederick Veith writes, Kawashima was “always attentive to the complex mediation and negotiation of social forces in a society in the midst of change”, and “often visualised this in the ebb and flow and constantly shifting, subtle reorientation of bodies as they move through space… In Bakumatsu taiyoden the focal point of this is the large central corridor of the Sagami-ya [brothel], through which he conducts traffic as if he were filming a busy street, full of economic activity”. Indeed, this period film is also arguably a comment on the postwar Japan in which it was made – the era of economic growth and transformation – as the opening shots of Shinagawa’s modern red light district (then on the verge of closure after a change in Japanese law) suggests. The “Kinema Junpo” reviewer, one may suppose, was reflecting on this contemporary context in his cryptic comment that the film, although a jidaigeki, “reeked of butter” (ie, evoked the West), and when he identified the young samurai revolutionaries as après-guerre figures. He praised the way in which Kawashima depicted the eroticism of the pleasure district with humour, commented that the character of Saheiji as played by Sakai reminded him of Figaro, and noted that the film was, “as always, very well made”. Kawashima himself, interviewed in “Kinema Junpo”, observed that “depicting serious characters in a serious way is always difficult, and therefore I am afraid that my characters always become rather careless, or at least almost certainly scatterbrained. It is not that I am looking for an easy way out, but I kind of feel like I want to leave [myself] an escape route”. Commenting on the film’s fusion of fact and fiction through the characters of Inokori Saheiji and Shinsaku Takasugi (a fictional character and a historical figure respectively), he said: “It goes without saying that they have different personalities. However, to my mind, they both lived life with vigour, and I think that they fit together. Five or six years ago I thought of this combination, and this is the result. These two characters were not easy to tie down, and pushed me to the breaking point. That is to say, the energy that these two characters have, perhaps best called vital force, was stronger than I had expected, and overpowered my own meagre strength”. Shohei Imamura, just about to embark on his own directorial career, cowrote the screenplay; the film is, as he wrote, “essential to an understanding of Kawashima”.
Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström