Sunday, March 13, 2011

Review – Talking Silents 5: Kurama Tengu/The Frightful Era of Kurama Tengu

March 13, 2011

Kurama Tengu – Japan, 1928

Shunsui Matsuda has quite a sense of humor. During a rather serious scene in which a young boy named Sugisaku is pleading with a hired assassin not to kill his hero, Tengu Kurama, Mr. Matsuda narrates the boy’s plea as follows: “If you kill him, the movie will be over.” Not sure that a film from 1928 would break the fourth wall, I watched the scene again later, this time with Midori Sawato’s narration. She does not include the line in question, opting instead to let the scene stay as dramatic as possible. Now, usually I would fall into the camp that argues that a dramatic moment should be treated as one. If someone is pleading for someone’s life, there’s shouldn’t be a reason for the audience to break into laughter, and I have used this argument in my criticism of such films as Saving Private Ryan. However, I must admit to seeing an odd logic in Mr. Matsuda’s decision to play the moment for laughs. Perhaps that’s because Kurama Tengu is essentially a children’s film that just happens to have a few rather action-packed scenes of samurai warfare in it, and if the technique works in Herbert Brenon’s 1924 adaptation of Peter Pan, perhaps it will also work in a film about a samurai who has great empathy for child acrobats.

According to IMDB, Kurama Tengu is one of eight films made about the legendary hero Kurama Tengu. The film takes place in the summer of 1862, and it helps to know a bit about what was happening in Japan at that time. Fortunately, the DVD contains a special feature on it of historian Tadao Sato explaining all that viewers need to know about that time period. The film takes place nine years after the shocking arrival of Commodore Perry, who demanded that Japan end its seclusion from the rest of the world. According to Mr. Sato, when the events depicted in the film occur, Japan is divided between the Tokugawa Shogunate, who want Japan to remain isolated and for the Shogunate to remain in power, and rebel groups like the Emperor’s Lions, who feel the Shogunate is too weak to rule Japan and advocate a unified Japan under the primary control of the Emperor. The Tokugawa Shogunate decide to hire the best samurai they can find to wage war against the Emperor’s Lions and organize them into police squads, one of which is called Shinsenguni. This squad is led by Isami Konda, who makes appearance in many of the Kurama Tengu films. In reality, the hero of the rebel group was Tenzen Kurata. In his novels, writer Jiro Osaragi altered the name slightly, making it Kurama Tengu, which means “The Devil of Kurama.” Mr. Sato explains that for Japanese audiences in the late 1920’s both Konda and Tengu were heroes, two men fighting for different, but nonetheless noble visions of Japan’s future.

In the beginning of Kurama Tengu, the feature film in volume five of Digital Meme’s Talking Silents series, we learn that Tengu (Kanjuro Arashi) has been sentenced to death after being captured while trying to smuggle out a list of the Shogunate’s potential targets. Word gets out that he is being held in Kyoto, and both assassins and supporters set off to either achieve fame by being the one to kill Tengu or to save him. Tengu’s enemies are an odd bunch, ranging from the beautiful Okane (Kuni Gomi), who carries with her a pistol; an exceptionally clumsy samurai named Choshichi (Shoroku Onoe); and Konda (Reisaburo Yamamoto). Along with these three, there are perhaps hundreds of lower henchmen, who are either buffoons or vastly inferior swordsmen to Tengu. Tengu’s supporters consist of Sugisaku (Kaiichi Arashi), a young, rather resourceful child acrobat, Otsuyu (Eiko Ikoma), a beautiful woman in love with Tengu, and Kichibei (Kitsuemon Arashi), a fellow samurai. The first half of the film is devoted to the attempt to rescue Tengu before his assassination. The second half involves an additional attempt on Tengu’s life. The two parts are loosely connected, and it seems odd that Tengu would be lured into a trap so soon after escaping death, but it does set up a rather impressive action sequence.

The film’s action scenes drew me in much more than I had expected them to. Credit for this should goes to Kanjuro Arashi. Arashi was trained in classical dance and Kabuki, and his movements show it. During action sequences, his footwork is every bit as impressive as Fred Astaire’s during a dance number. Arashi also uses his face rather well. During moments when Tengu is getting prepared to fight or simply getting angry, Arashi lifts the right side of his lips while leaving the left side unchanged. It has a rather powerful effect. He also has an interesting way of standing, his head leaning forward slightly, his eyebrows raised, his chest out as if daring someone to challenge him. It’s easy to see why audiences responded to Arashi in this role and why they were disappointed when another actor took it over. In addition, during the film, one witnesses some equally interesting sights. Characters such as Konda move in ways clearly inspired by Kabuki techniques. They walk in carefully organized steps, first the right foot, then the left, even when they are trying to sneak up on someone. In addition, many of the characters wear make-up that shades their eyebrows dark brown and makes them appear as if they are pointing towards the sky.

For all of its well choreographed action scenes, much of the first half of Kurama Tengu appears to have been intended as pure comedy. The film uses slapstick techniques during a long scene in which Sugisaku is pursued by samurai, and the scene will likely remind you of the Keystone Cops. The pursuing samurai look foolish chasing Sugisaku, innocent people get pushed down during the chase and comically break into tears, and Sugisaku smiles excessively as he’s being chased, as if he were not in any danger whatsoever. In another scene, two characters escape capture using techniques reminiscent of animated characters trying to sneak up on people. There’s also a scene in which Sugisaku teases Otsuyu for being in love with Tengu that exists for no particular reason. Perhaps that revelation is important in later films. However, as silly as it looked, I must admit to be a bit impressed by Tengu’s ability to carry Sugisaku with one hand and fight enemy samurai with the other.

All in all, Kurama Tengu is a good film that tries a bit too hard to be both serious and fun. I’m not sure what an audience is supposed to think when they are made to laugh one moment and then suddenly in front of their eyes are samurais being picked off one after another. To me, the jump is just too big. In addition, the film’s ending is likely to disappoint contemporary audiences, as it ends without any resolution and before the key battle even takes place. The film is memorable for the performances of Arashi and Yamamoto, yet its constant overreliance on comedy ultimately prevents it from packing the punch that its dramatic elements deserve. (on DVD)

3 stars

*Included on the DVD is a short film called The Frightful Era of Kurama Tengu. The film has elements of both classic horror and action. Many of the same supporting characters appear in the film that appear in Kurama Tengu, in particular Okane and Choshichi. The plot revolves around Tengu trying to find the bandits that are terrorizing local residents. He discovers that someone has been masquerading as him and committing crimes in an effort to ruin his reputation. The film includes the same mix of action and comedy that is found in Kurama Tengu. One interesting difference is that in The Frightful Era of Kurama Tengu, Tengu wears a mask. Mr. Soto explains that this is the result of the popularity of films like 1920’s The Mark of Zorro. However, as he points out, samurai only wore masks when they frequented red-light districts, something that a man like Kurama Tengu would probably never do.

3 stars

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