Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review – Talking Silents 7: Jirokichi the Rat

March 31, 2011

Jirokichi the Rat – Japan, 1931

There is a line from Daisuke Ito’s 1931 film Jirokichi the Rat that I absolutely love. Just before it is said, our hero Jirokichi (Denjiro Okachi) meets Osen (Naoe Fushimi), a beautiful young woman very much in distress. The two of them experience an immediate attraction, and soon find themselves standing on a riverboat under the starry sky. Then, according to the benshi, “Only the new moon saw what happened.” It’s such an interesting image – the moonless sky looking down at two people in love and allowing them the privacy necessary to properly explore their blossoming feelings. I wish I’d thought of it. One expects, given such a set-up, that this is the beginning of a remarkable love story, and true to form, it is – it’s just not the one you might expect it to be.

Jirokichi the Rat is the story of a man who could easily be called “the Japanese Robin Hood,” for both Jirokichi and Robin Hood are thieves who rob the wealthy and give what they plundered to the underprivileged. However, that’s really where the comparisons end, for Jirokichi travels without a band of merry men to keep him company, and his crimes can have rather grave unintended consequences. However, what strikes me as the biggest difference between the two characters is the lack of a Maid Marian character in Jirokichi’s life, of that constant female character that enables him to always be seen as both heroic and romantic.

The film opens with Jirokichi on the run, having robbed ninety-nine rich lords in Edo of quite a lot of money. On the boat, he stops a thief from stealing Osen’s purse, and the two of them fall head over heels in love. Later, Osen tells Jirokichi that her unscrupulous brother Nikichi (Minoru Takase) has recently made a deal to sell her to a brothel. Jirokichi, being the hero and romantic as he is, heads off to speak to Osen’s brother about the matter. However, upon arriving at Nikichi’s barbershop, he happens to glimpse an equally beautiful young woman in peril named Okino (Nobuko Fushimi). And just like that, all of his sweet reassuring words become dedicated to her. As for Osen, he dismisses her rather coldly by telling her, “You can go” and throwing some money her way. When asked if he’ll think of her from time to time, he simply responds, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll forget about you completely.” I got the sense that he meant it, too. Osen, however, is determined not to be forgotten.

One of the interesting aspects of Jirokichi the Rat is its exploration of the unintended consequences of Jirokichi’s actions. For every rich lord who is robbed, there are likely to be less-wealthy people who are held responsible for the thefts that are committed. In Jirokichi the Rat, one such person turns out to be Okino’s invalid father, who is a former guard for a Shogun lord. Ashamed that the robbery took place under his watch, he promised to repay the money that was stolen, only to fall on hard times, both financially and physically. Upon hearing this, what choice does Jirokichi really have but to try to help Okino and her family?

Jirokichi the Rat touches on a variety of interesting and important issues, perhaps the most pressing being the vulnerable position that poor women can find themselves in. As a result of her father’s physical condition, Okino is forced to consider becoming a geisha. Nikichi has another solution. He proposes she become the mistress of a wealthy samurai, arguing that it is better to have only one lover. She doesn’t appear to have any other options. Another interesting issue that the film addresses is corruption. Nikichi may be a rather despicable person, but that doesn’t stop him from being given a powerful position in law enforcement. In fact, it appears to help him, for the samurai pursuing Okino doesn’t care how she is brought to him, just as long as she is his in the end. With Nikichi in such a distinguished position, the future doesn’t bode well for women such as Osen and Okino.

Jirokichi the Rat is a remarkably mature film. It treats its subject matter seriously and for the most part dispenses with the usual comic characters that so many films from this time us to entertain the audience. It places a flawed but likeable character in a rather realistic scenario and follows him as he struggles with what he wants and what he knows is true about himself. Nikichi is a thoroughly realistic villain, and Okino and Osen are compelling heroines. The cast is superb, and it is easy to see why Denjiro Okochi, who actually plays two roles in the film, had the following that he had. In addition, the film contains a few very impressive action sequences. They were shot by Hiromitsu Karasawa. He was famous for strapping a camera to his body and then moving among the actors during the filming of action sequences. The cameras constant shaking and its persistent shifting of focus create an incredibly realistic sense of pandemonium. The film is worth seeing just for these scenes. However, it’s a pleasure to report that the rest of the film is equally as interesting. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

*Jirokichi the Rat is in Japanese with English subtitles. The DVD contains two narrations: one by Shunsui Matsuda, the other by Midori Sawato.
*The DVD also includes two humorous Yaji and Kita shorts and a fascinating history lesson by film critic Tadao Sato.

No comments: