February 7, 2011
Koina no Ginpei, Migratory Snowbird – Japan, 1931
The Kosuzume Pass – Japan, 1923
“The custom that upheld the superiority of the samurai class led to this hideous bloodshed.” “Unjust customs consume us like cancer.” - Samurai in The Kosuzume Pass
Perhaps no aspect of Japanese cinema has fascinated Western audiences more than the culture of the samurai. Although many samurai were part of clans formed in an effort to protect themselves from other, perhaps more powerful clans, they have achieved a rather respectable status in the minds of many contemporary filmgoers, partly as a result of the films of Akira Kurosawa. This picture of the noble samurai risking his life for the weak and defenseless is somewhat surprising seeing as how in their heyday samurai were generally seen as being of a higher class than those they are portrayed as helping in Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. Honor, duty to one’s master, and unchallenged loyalty – these were what the samurai valued, not protecting the powerless. It was often only after a samurai became masterless that he would resort to either crime or benevolence in order to survive.
In addition, love was a complicated matter for the samurai. A samurai marriage was often arranged, and a samurai married someone from a higher or equal social rank. A lower-ranking samurai was allowed to marry a “common” woman, but her family had to provide a dowry, perhaps signaling that marriage to a samurai – even one not ranked very highly - was viewed as a step up the social ladder. These traditions were likely based partly on necessity, for samurai had little time to interact with or meet women. Often the only women they had a chance to get to know were the daughters or wives of fellow samurai. For the fourth volume of the Talking Silents series, the good folks at Digital Meme have included two samurai films about samurai and love. In Koina no Ginpei, Migratory Snowbird, a samurai experiences unrequited love and must deal with the resulting rage he feels. The Kosuzume Pass shows viewers the results of a samurai falling in love with a woman that he knows he cannot marry. Both films depict samurai as flawed individuals whose uncontrolled emotions can have devastating results on the women they fall for.
Koinq no Ginpei, Migratory Snowbird, directed by Tomikazu Miyata, takes place in the midst of a power struggle between two rival gangs competing for control of a small town called Shimado. On one side are the samurai who fight for a rather ruthless man named Usimatsu; on the other side is the vastly outnumbered gang of the slightly more peaceful Onahi. Towards the beginning of the film, we learn that a fight has broken out between rival gang members and that an all-out war will soon commence. This is bad timing for the film’s central character, Koina no Ginpei (the legendary Tsumasaburo Bando), for he was just about to confess his true feelings to Oichi (Reiko Mochizuki) the daughter of a retired samurai named Gohei (Saburo Kojima). It’s probably a good thing he didn’t though seeing as how she’s engaged to another of Onahi’s samurai, Tsumeki no Unokichi (Kikuya Okada).
Much of the drama in the film begins after Unokichi, unaware of Ginpei’s explosive feelings for his fiancée, makes the mistake of leading Ginpei to believe that Oichi has feeling for him, which causes him in turn to confess his feelings to Unokichi. Upon hearing this, Unokichi’s fun smile turns to a look of scorn faster than you can say “love triangle.” Unokichi quickly reveals the truth, and Ginpei, utterly humiliated and embarrassed, delivers a not-so cryptic message concerning the possibility of death on the battlefield. It is then that the film delivers what will later be a recurring theme: “Love can make a person a demon or a viper.” What is left unsaid is that love can also make someone act heroically.
Koroku Numata’s The Kosuzume Pass begins to tackle the code of the samurai in its first few minutes, during which we learn that a young samurai is in a relationship that he knows has no future. Perhaps it would if he had a bit more backbone. The relationship begins during a brief return home and ends when he returns to his clan in another city. The benshi informs us that he is now resigned to living a loveless life. The woman he leaves behind soon gives birth to a child and as a result of the shame her family feels, she is banished from her home. The bulk of the film takes place ten years after these events, as the child of this couple, now an orphan, makes a living selling candy along the pass he has called home for ten years. One day, he protects a group of wayward ronin and tries his utmost to convince them to change their way of life. He even offers them what little money he has as a gift if only they will promise to give up crime. Eventually his earnest pleas move them and they give up their criminal ways. Things change for everyone after the boy is reunited with his father.
Both films are worth watching. They are well acted, have plenty of intriguing characters, and are filled with well choreographed sword duels. The films are also interesting for what they show about the samurai. In these films, they are men much more prone to jealousy, rage, and betrayal over perceived slights than men driven by honor to do the right thing. When they fight, it is often for their own honor or the honor of loved ones, and their conflicts do not seem to serve a greater good. In fact, in defending their own honor, they actually go against the samurai code, which carries with it great penalty. One of the films, in fact, reminded me a lot of Charles Dickens' masterpiece A Tale of Two Cities. Koina no Ginpei, Migratory Snowbird is a bit stronger, partly as a result of its slightly more accessible structure. There’s a leap in time towards the beginning of The Kosuzume Pass that is a bit too jarring. In addition, Koina no Ginpei is in much better condition. However, as usual, I’m just happy to be able to see them at all. (on DVD)
Koina no Ginpei, Migratory Snowbird (3 and a half stars)
The Kosuzume Pass (3 stars)