Sunday, March 20, 2011

Review – Talking Silents 6: The Color Print of Edo: Hatamoto to Machiyakko/Skull

March 20, 2011

The Color Print of Edo: Hatamoto to Machiyakko – Japan, 1939
Skull – Japan, 1927

I have never seen anything quite like Kazuo Mori’s film The Color Print of Edo: Hatamoto to Machiyakko. The film is a samurai film that is part slapstick comedy and part action. It contains both realistic storylines and characteristics that seem completely out of place in a samurai film. Its central character is a low-level samurai who in one scene can defeat entire groups without any assistance, yet is practically incompetent in a fight whenever his opponent is his brother Kojiro. Whereas most brothers develop a more mature way of expressing their anger as they get older, these two are more apt to resort to name-calling and to wildly flail their legs at each other than they are to volley unpleasant verbal jabs. In addition, the film is a silent film only because the sound track was lost.

The film stars Utaemon Ichikawa as Saburoshi Asahina, a samurai in Edo in the mid-1600s. Asahina runs the Office for Quarrels with Samurai, and from the looks of things, he doesn’t have many customers. It probably wasn’t wise to register an official complaint against a samurai, especially for someone living in Edo, where 40% of the population was samurai. The customers he does have are more of an annoyance to him. As the film explains, Asahina is one of the most handsome men in Edo, and he has “countless female fans.” When Asahina’s underling Gonpei tells one such woman that Asahina will be angry if he returns to find her waiting for him, she replies that she doesn’t mind. “I’d love to have him spank me.” It is easy to see why this kind of woman would not appeal to a noble man such as Asahina. However, the truth is that no woman appeals to him. In his own words, he hates “women and seaweed.”

Much of The Color Print of Edo: Hatamoto to Michiyakko has to do with Asahina trying to help a young woman named Onami (Yaeko Kumoi). Onami is his brother’s maid, and the two of them have fallen deeply in love. His family has other plans, however. After consulting with the town’s local matchmaker, Master Otubo (Taisuke Matsumoto), it is decided that Kojiro (Shinpachiro Asaka) will marry a woman named Chihaya (Wakako Kunitomo). The problem is that Chihaya is already engaged to her brother’s friend. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Chihaya wants to marry Asahina, who protects her from fiancé’s drunken unwanted advances towards the beginning of the film. All of this sets up a series of incredible events that include dueling marriage processions, a flabbergasted matchmaker, a kidnapping in which the victim appears surprisingly willing to be held captive, two brothers who bring out the absolute worst in each other, and an ancestral tablet that seems to be the only things that can separate the two of them when tempers flare.

Perhaps most impressive is the fact that none of the film’s comic elements diminish its dramatic moments. This is a film about two competing clans, a samurai who becomes a champion for the underprivileged, a woman whose life is dictated to her by men, and the notion of honor. I was amazed at how well the film addressed each of these elements, while simultaneously retaining its humor.

Completing the sixth volume of Digital Meme’s Talking Silents is Sentaro Shirai’s 1927 film Skull, a film that could not be more different than The Color Print of Edo: Hatamoto to Michiyakko. The film takes place during the seventeenth century, just after the Tokugawa Shogunate issue anti-Christian edicts in an attempt to eradicate Christianity from Japan. The actions of the Shogunate result in a war between its forces and local Christian lords. One of the men defending Christianity is Reinosuke Ushio (Utaemon Ichikawa). The film follows two tracks. First, we see the battle between the Christians and the Shogunate, a battle that history tells us Ushio and his men are destined to lose. The film also shows viewers the woman and child that Ushio leaves behind. It cannot be easy to watch the one you love go off to fight a war; it must be twice as difficult to hear people say that when he returns, he’s going to marry someone else. And even though there is no evidence that this is true, the rumor is enough to nudge Osetsu (Ritsuko Niizuma) towards irrationality. The film is both fascinating and tragic, showing the power of rumor and the harshness of shogunate law. Both films are certainly worth watching. (on DVD)

The Color Print of Edo: Hatamoto to Michiyakko – 4 stars
Skull – 3 and a half stars

*Both films are narrated by Midori Sawato. The DVD also includes benshi Shunsui Matsuda narrating The Color Print of Edo: Hatamoto to Michiyakko.
*The meaning of the phrase Hatamoto to Michiyakko is explained by film critic Tadao Sato on the DVD’s special features. It is important to the film.

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