Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review – Orochi (Serpent)

January 13, 2011

Orochi – Japan, 1925

I have no idea just how you turn down a samurai’s request to drink with him without making him angry, but apparently, telling him that you’re too drunk to make it to the other side of the room doesn’t always work. I learned this from the opening scene of Buntaro Futagawa’s interesting 1925 film Orochi. The samurai who commits this rather grievous faux pas is Heizaburo Kuritomi (Tsumasaburo Bando), a lower-ranking samurai, and the man who feels slighted by him is Shinpachiro Namioka (Momotaro Yamamura), the son of Heizaburo’s chief retainer, a status that gains someone both respect and fear. Under the amplifying affects of the alcohol, small slights become extremely enlarged, and quickly the two are engaged in what looks to be a wrestling match with a few punches thrown in for good measure. Soon the master of the clan, Hyozan Matsusumi (Misao Seki), arrives to break it up. He wastes no time in placing the blame on Heizaburo, a judgment that none of the other twenty or so samurai present contradicts, and just like that Heizaburo is branded a bully and a troublemaker. The label stings, not just because his master believes it, but more importantly because the master’s beautiful daughter Namie (Utako Tamaki), whom our hero is madly in love with, seems willing to believe it as well.

It is this quick judgment that the film cautions its audience against. In the film’s preamble, audience members are warned to be wary of first impressions and hasty judgments, for sometimes a villain can be a hero and vice versa. It’s an unnecessary introduction, but it sets the stage nicely for what follows it. It also lets us know that despite what we might think, young Heizaburo is not to blame for the aforementioned melee. I say despite what you think because I too found myself branding this romantic young samurai a bit, not as a troublemaker but as someone who has learned neither the little adage about sticks and stones nor the one about nobody liking a tattle tail. In no time at all, we see Heizaburo picking a fight with three armed samurai when he hears them spread some rather salacious gossip about Namie and her father. The fight that ensues gets him expelled from his master’s group and his ill-advised subsequent attempt to explain himself to Namie gets him banned from the town. All of this happens after people rush to judgment, although to be fair, when you walk in on a man holding a woman against her will, it’s hard not to make up your mind about what his intentions are instantaneously.

One of the fascinating things about Orochi is the very realistic way Heizaburo reacts to these frustrating experiences. He naively thinks his master will see the truth. When that doesn’t pan out, he pins his hopes on the woman he adores because in his inexperience, he still believes that if anything can see through injustice, it’s love. Of course, it helps when the person you love loves you back, which Namie doesn’t appear to do. Perhaps the last refuge of the wrongfully accused is the law, and even that fails him. His frustration is therefore reasonable, yet it’s also dangerous. When Heizaburo finally explodes over what to many of us would be a rather trivial matter, the resulting violence can only make his life harder. Eventually, it makes him contemplate things that frankly no man should ever contemplate.

Orochi has several problems. The first is pacing. Some scenes go on too long, and characters end up saying the same thing over and over again. Another problem involves some of the film’s action scenes. At times, they appear to have been sped up, perhaps to give them more energy. However, it does the opposite. It actually makes some of them look clumsy and incoherent. I have no idea how Heizaburo is as victorious in battle as he is or why police who have the element of surprise waste it so readily. It’s as if their purpose is not to capture him but to wait until he sees them so that they can engage him in a sword fight that their not skilled enough to be successful in. Third, the film has a few moments that may give the mistaken impression that the film was poorly edited. One of these moments cuts from Heizaburo being completely surrounded to him having already escaped. This is likely the result of a scene having been lost or damaged beyond repair.

What makes Orochi compelling is its dramatic storyline, its story of a man that society at large has judged erroneously and the effects that judgment has on him. Eventually the film becomes a battle for Heizaburo’s very soul, between the side of him that has come to believe that there is no more justice in the world and the side of him that still adheres to the noblest parts of the samurai code. At one point, he says, “A samurai never forgets a debt. But he does not commit evil to repay it.” It’s quite a nice moment. I won’t give anything else away, but let’s just say that it doesn’t bode well for someone morally when the people he calls friends are nicknamed “the Cat” and “the Rat.” Orochi lacks the choreography and editing of later samurai films, but it makes up for this deficit nicely with its adult subject matter and its heart. It’s well worth taking a look at. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

*The DVD for Orochi also includes the somewhat interesting short 1924 film Backward Flow, also directed by Buntaro Futagawa. Like Orochi, the film is about a lowly samurai named Mikiaburo Nanjo (also played by Tsumasaburo Bando), whose love for the master’s daughter is not returned. What distinguishes the film from Orochi is its inclusion of a character named Genzabura Hayamizu, who is apparently quite the ladies man. His habit of “loving them and leaving them” put him and Mikiabura on a collision course, and as we all know, slighted samurai rarely settle disputes with simple heart-to-heart conversations.

3 stars

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