Sog.: Sadao Yamanaka. Scen.: Shintaro Mimura. F.: Harumi Machii. Mus.: Goro Nishi. Su.: Keisuke Manpo. Int.: Chojuro Kawarasaki (Kochiyama Soshun), Kan’emon Nakamura (Kaneko Ichinojo), Sensho Ichikawa (Naozamurai), Shizue Yamagishi (Oshizu), Sukezo Sukedakaya (Ushimatsu), Setsuko Hara (Onami). Prod.: Nikkatsu. 35mm. D.: 81′. Bn.
Sadao Yamanaka (1909-1938), who worked solely in the genre of jidai-geki (period film), is one of the totemic figures of the prewar Japanese cinema, and his death in China before the age of thirty after his conscription into the army has made a martyr for Japanese liberalism in the 1930s. He made about twenty films, but only three survive intact, of which this is the least known – unjustly, since it is comfortably on a level aesthetically with the director’s acknowledged masterpice, Ninjo kamifusen (Humanity and Paper Balloons, 1937), and in some ways a richer and more emotionally complex work. This work was Yamanaka’s second collaboration with the actors of a progressive theatre troupe, the Zenshinza, with whom the director would sustain an ongoing collaboration until his death. It was loosely based on a celebrated kabuki play by Mokuami Kawatake, though its deromanticised tone and focus on petty criminals was inspired by Ozu’s 1933 gangster film, Hijosen no onna (Dragnet Girl), which Yamanaka greatly admired. It is the only one of his three extant features to preserve an extensive sequence of swordplay, revealing his skill as a purveyor of action. As with his other surviving work, however, the primary focus of the film is on the delineation of characterization and milieu. The richly atmospheric portrait of the Edo-period Japanese city, its customs and amusements, recalls the world of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, while Yamanaka acutely exposes the political realities of the era with what Keiko McDonald terms “the sentimental realist’s view of the underdog’s life under an autocratic political regime”.
The tone of the work is remarkable, expertly blending elements of tragedy, irony and dark wit, and portraying its characters with a scrupulous realism comparable to that of Ozu and Naruse’s films set in contemporary Japan. Ozu, indeed, believed that Yamanaka would have moved towards gendai-geki (films with contemporary settings) had he lived. As Kimitoshi Sato writes, “We find people in [Yamanaka’s] films to be just as our neighbors are in this modern world”.
Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström