Thursday, April 14, 2011

Review – Talking Silents 9: Samurai Town, Story 1 and 2/Sozenji Baba

April 14, 2011

Samurai Town, Story 1 – Japan, 1928
Samurai Town, Story 2 – Japan, 1929
Shozenji Baba – Japan, 1929

The climax of Masahiro Makino’s film Samurai Town, Story 1 features a woman in danger, a single samurai battling a horde of other samurai, two of his friends rushing to join him on the battlefield, and a fourth samurai struggling with his conscience. It’s quite a series of events, one made all the more eerie by a character reciting a poem while he continues fighting despite having sustained an injury that will ultimately end his life. The action comes fast and furious, and from what we see of him, the evil master of the samurai clan is both dangerous with a sword and morally rotten to the core. The eight minutes of this film that are included on the ninth volume of Digital Meme’s Talking Silents series made me hungry for the rest of the film, which alas does not exist anymore. Our loss. The snippet that does survive is proof of the prowess of second-generation filmmaker Masahiro Makino, who was just twenty when he made the film. According to film critic Tadao Sato, Makino made approximately two hundred and forty films. IMDB credits him with directing one hundred and thirty two, one of which is 1938’s Kurama Tengu, which was included on volume five of the series. Makino’s accomplishments are impressive regardless of which number you take into consideration.

A year later, Makino released Samurai Town, Story 2, which in spite of its title is not a sequel. Rather, it is story with a similar theme, the life of the samurai. The film survives today, although I suspect that a few scenes have been lost. There are occasional references to events that we haven’t seen. In one such scene, we learn that a rather important character has died, and it seems odd that this would happen off scene and then be referenced in the fashion that it is.

The film is a snapshot of the lives of a group of loosely-connected characters, and as such, the film’s offers little in the way of real resolution. The first group we met consists of a married couple, Jinnai Miyauchi and his wife Omaki (Kimie Kawakami). Jinnai is a samurai, yet has a rather weak personality. His wife is from a very wealthy family, and it’s clear that she’s in charge of the household. In fact, one of the conditions that Jinnai had to agree to when he married her was that she would never do housework. The two of them have a rather unwelcome houseguest, a rude wandering samurai named Heihatchi Senba. Heihatchi’s chauvinistic aggressive actions toward the two of them result in Omaki’s father deciding to remove his daughter from the home she shares with Jinnai.

Next door to Jinnai live a young woman named Omon (Tsukie Matsura) and her ailing father. Towards the beginning of the film Omon is visited by her estranged brother Jubei. Jubei has to sneak around because the local yakuza boss Miura wants him dead. Unfortunately for Jubei, his presence has not gone undetected. A samurai named Dengozaemon Fuwa (Komei Minami) has seen him and is lurking somewhere in the distance. At the same time, a masterless samurai named Sanjuro Shirakawa (Hiroshi Tsumura) arrives at Jinnai’s home requesting a loan of fifty ryo.

The film gives viewers an understanding of the different paths that ronin took. Some like Heihatchi engaged in illegal activity and had to continuously flee or hide out. Some like Shirakawa and Dengozaemon struggled to uphold the moral principles they believed in while also making enough money to survive. Others rented themselves out to local lords and essentially became hired men with no real individual value. Often this role meant that they had to go against long-standing notions of honor and integrity. The film also has an interesting subplot involving Omon having to choose between her brother and her father. One caused great harm to come to her, but abandoning him may just bring about his murder.

Samurai Town, Story 2 is an engaging film that falls apart a bit at the end, as the reason Shirakawa needs a loan muddy the waters instead of making them clear. It makes his initial act of requesting the loan from Jinnai rather stupefying and simply doesn’t gel well with the narrative presented to viewers. It also makes the film less about the precarious world these characters inhabit and more about the slightly less interesting theme of unrequited love. There are also a few scenes that lack continuity. In one of these scenes, a character is brutally beaten by two of Miura’s men. However, in the very next scene, the character appears completely unharmed, as if the attack never occurred. There’s also a rather long scene in which one character tells another that he will never speak to him again, and moments later, they’re sitting down drinking sake together as if nothing happened. Perhaps there’s a scene missing, but in this case, I doubt it.

What I like most about the film is the way Makino uses long close-ups to show a character’s change of emotions. We see characters slowly go from desperation to anger, from calm to rage, from hopeful to hopeless. Makino seems to be doubling the amount of time that directors usually give for these moments, and the effect is quite powerful. I also liked the way the film shows samurai being as troubled as the rest of us. Like the rest of us, they too can struggle with confidence and fall prey to bullies. Moreover like some of us, they may have to settle for loving someone from a distance, as moral integrity does not always lead to happiness.

The final film on this volume of Talking Silents is 1929’s Sozenji Baba, also directed by Makino. In his introduction to the film, Takao Sato hails the film as a masterpiece. We’ll have to take his word for it, for only a little more than a half hour of the film exists today. What does exist is rather encouraging, though. The film is about a samurai named Denpachiro Ikuta (Komei Minami) who in a bout of rage murders a fellow samurai after he loses a mock duel to him. After fleeing the scene, he saves a young woman named Okatsu (Tsukie Matsuura) and the two fall in love. However, he’s never able to shake the memory of his actions, and he knows that some time soon people will arrive to avenge the man he killed.

The film looks to be well directed. The action sequences that have survived are impressive, in particular, a long sequence in which Okatsu fends on police officers and samurai trying to kill the man she loves. This is the earliest action scene I can recall in which a woman showed such bravery, determination, and skill, and Matsuura is simply incredible in the scene. I also like the way Makino presents the dialogue on the film’s intertitles from all angles. This helps viewers to fully understand the chaos and urgency of the events unfolding in front of them. Perhaps most impressive of all is the powerful way the film tackles two competing motivations: love and honor. For Okatsu, protecting the one she loves comes first; for Denpachiro, the samurai code, which recognizes the right to avenge someone unjustly killed and to face an adversary one on one, takes precedence. Perhaps this was a masterpiece. What I can say with absolute certainty is that this is one of those rare moment when I am all for a remake. (on DVD)

Samurai Town, Story 2 – 3 and a half stars

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