Drama, Films, Japan, Reviews

The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka

Sadao Yamanaka’s three surviving movies get the Masters of Cinema treatment, a masterpiece of his own published by Eureka…

Genta of the Shore: The Longsword of Dakine, I wish I could watch it. What’s left of it is just a short fragment included in the Sadao Yamanaka’s Masters of Cinema boxset published on the 5th of June, a brief scene in which we can see the main character fighting against a bunch of foes. It’s a rousing one, introduced by East Asian film expert Tony Rayns, a regular contributor for both Sight & Sound and Time Out whose knowledge enriches this second release dedicated to the young Japanese director of the Thirties, straight after Humanity and Paper Ballons first DVD.

Rayns enthusiasm alone is worthy enough, and fate has been good to us helping Eureka in the decision of publishing this collection of the whole existing feature films by Sadao Yamanaka, which includes not only a second version of Humanity and Paper Balloons, but, obviously, his other two movies too: the comedy The Obscure Story of Tange Sazen: The Million Ryô Pot and the jidaigeki Kôchiyama Sôshun. It’s a lovely boxset that gives us an insight on Yamanaka’s life in movies and not, it let us understand how he was able to jump from one genre to another. From a classical sword fighting scene (The Longsword of Dakine, known also as Sleeping with a Long Sword) to a moving sequence in The Million Ryo Pot, or Sôshun‘s outrageous life and brave sacrifice; Yamanaka was a man with no limits.

He was 29 when he died during the war in Manchuria, serving as a common foot soldier in 1938, one year after the Rape of Nanjing. He was friend with Ozu and an admirer of Daisuke Itō, completely soaked in the moviemaking business since the late Twenties, but life, and maybe something more, had a different plan for him. We’re lucky that the history of cinema never wanted him to be forgotten in the land of time, he’s only three existing films are considered some of the best Japanese productions of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Masters of Cinema itself presents Yamanaka as a director often compared in terms of importance to Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, an idea everybody is glad to share with everyone who considers him to be one of the greatest masters.

His most famous film is his first one shot in 1935, considering the chronological order of those three survirors, Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo. Tange Sazen was a character borrowed from Fubo Hayashi’s novels written from 1927 to 1928, same year in which the Japanese film industry decided to catch it and have him as a star of a successful series of silent films. Goro Hirose and Daisuke Itō were the first  to portray the one armed/one eyed ronin, mutilated in a fight caused by a betrayal between those belonging to the Soma Clan. As Fubo Hayashi wrote, he was a dramatic character, a tough man completely different from what Sadao Yamanaka had in mind for his The Million Ryô Pot.

In 1928 there were two actors for this role, first Tokuma Dan for Goro Hirose and then the best one, Denjirô Ôkôchi (Sanshiro Sugata, No Regrets For Our Youth), who had to dress his scar for twenty-five years, even starring in The Million Ryô Pot for Sadao Yamanaka’s take on Sazen. We learn thanks to Tony Rayns’, that the original title of The Million Ryô Pot explains that this is a side story to what usually Sazen is involved into, a much desired explanation arrived to help us understand how’s possible that such a rude ronin could become part of a light family comedy.

Sadao Yamanaka’s movie is about a small ugly pot on which there’s a hidden map, a guide to a buried treasure. The Yagyu family’s elder son sent the pot as a gift for the younger brother marriage, not knowing what was the meaning of those awful monkeys drawn on its surface, but when they discover the secret it’s too late, cause Genzaburo Yagyu’s (Kunitaro Sawamura, The Burmese Harp, Gate of Hell) wife sold it to a scrap dealer. Killed in an ambush, the pot ends in the scrap dealer’s son’s hands, who uses it as a bowl for his beloved goldfishes. His name is Yasu, protected now by the poor and kindhearted ronin Tange Sazen.

Although the movie titles feature Tange Sazen as the main character, The Million Ryô Pot, exactly as the others survived movies, is a story with two protagonists: Tange Sazen and Genzaburo Yagyu, while Yasu glues them together. It’s a simple movie directed with a minimalist style, nothing appears on the screen if it doesn’t have any relative meaning to the story, every frame is beautifully followed by another one that fits perfectly on its predecessor shoulders. Yamanaka respects the rules of film syntaxes, he crafts a poetry in images choosing the exact words needed to make the perfect sense to spread all over his screenplay.

He starts from an establishing shots, he chooses the right angle and uses it many times in order to have the audience to feel more at ease in these places that shares the same importance the characters have. Where does someone live, weep and laughs is part of those who walk on the screen and Yamanaka’s knows it, joining both a production practical and theoretical issue. But this is the only comedy Yamanaka has left us, one of those able to improve the day. But the days were slowly falling in a darker decade, and in 1936, when Sadao Yamanaka directed Kôchiyama Sôshun Japan was at the gate of the second Sino-Japanese war.

Kôchiyama Sôshun real title would have been easier to understand, Kochiyama and Naojiro is in fact the original title of the kabuki opera from which Sadao Yamanaka’s made his second surviving film. As The Million Ryô Pot and Sleeping with a Long Sword, Kôchiyama Sôshun is a jidaigeki, but when and where is set is not really important, ‘cause as many tales, novels and stories, even this one could be in any time of History and still be the same. It’s a universal story about Kochiyama and Naojiro, two small thieves whose “work” is to play cons against samurais and people of higher social levels. They’re a sort of Robin Hood capitalist cooperative, they help others but mainly themselves.

Kawatake Mokuani was the creator of Kôchiyama Sôshun, a renowned kabuki author whose work adapted by Yamanaka was usually played in two different parts, one about Kochiyama and the second one focused on Naojiro, a name that will quickly change in Hirotaro: one a older man and leader of the gang, whose final sacrifice will justify the film title chosen in his honor, often disguised as a priest; the other a young and pleasant boy concentrated on women and money. But there’s a third character, maybe the most important of them all: a knife.

This knife is at the centre of Yamanaka’s parody (as Keiko McDonald wrote in her book Japanese Classical Theater in Films) or dramatic movie, hard is to say on which side Sôshun is resting, rich in sarcasm and pessimism especially when relaying on the journey involving a small knife, a valuable piece part of a Samurai sword set. A stolen knife that by the end of the movie will go back in his hands, but sold as a fake instead for what it really is, a comparison to what the once contemporary society was all about, eating truth and spitting out lies. Japan was ready to invade mainland China, a military regime was shaping the country, and the story of two rascals fighting against the Lords could be seen as an aggressive flick directed as a firm critic.

A tale of a fake monk and a fake love, a fake knife and a fake intelligence, everything is shown in words. However Soshun kabuki origins are against words, images, movements and acting is what really communicates with the audience and Yamanaka chooses carefully when and where to feature those moments picturing the evolution of his characters, giving to Hirotaro a modern look by saving him with Sôshun sacrifice, a baffling final battle that can never be mistaken for a classic heroic fight. It is what it is: the discovery of a world grown on his/their shoulders while they were pointing their eyes and minds on something else.

Days have passed since I last saw Kôchiyama Sôshun’s final scene and still Chojuro Kawarasaki (The 47 Ronin, Musashi Miyamoto) expression is in my mind, remembering him trying to hold back those who are chasing him and Hirotaro, running away with his sister (Setsuko Hara, Late Spring, Tokyo Story) and their money, is a pleasure. It might not be simple to follow the events of Kôchiyama Sôshun, but Sadao Yamanaka’s intent is clear, his ideas come at the audience shiny and beautiful, a sad memory of a time where things were about to change forever, not only for Japan and the rest of the world, but for Yamanaka himself, who would have soon left for the front.

Akira Mimura is the greatest improvement in Yamanaka’s last movie, Humanity and Paper Ballons. Mimura was the last cinematographer Yamanaka had worked with, a strong relationship could have developed from here: the look, the images and the light of Humanity recalls the final moment of the director’s life, when everything becomes sharp and clear.

What if the story of the samurai who lost his knife would have been different? Every inch of irony disappears in this third movie, there’s no glory or honor, Kurosawa’s grandeur is far away from Humanity, since the first scene where a Samurai hanged himself after having sold his true sword for a bamboo one. There are no more disguises, a crude truth faces every character: Matajuro Unno (Chôjûrô Kawarasaki, Mitamoto Musashi, The 47 Ronin) is a young samurai whose purpose in life is to hand out his father’s last will to Master Mori, a man who prefers to escape from hid duty towards someone who was once his partner; Shinza (Kan’emon Nakamura, Kôchiyama Sôshun, At the Risk of My Life) is a barber on the paper, but in real life his a not very smart gambler who’ll decide to fight dirt against Master Mori’s men.

No more Tange Sazen, no more Kôchiyama Sôshun, mankind is the protagonist in Humanity. Yamanaka points his own microscope at a group of people living under the same Landlord (Sukezo Sukedakaya, The 47 Ronin, The Night Before) who’re trying to keep living avoiding every single bad event’s happening next them. Humanity is a species without wings, the only way he has to reach the sky is by building those paper balloons made by Unno’s wife, Otaki (Shizue Yamagishi, Danshichi in the Mist, Saga of the Vagabonds). Unfortunately those paper ballons cannot fly for real and are just taken away by wind and as the final scene shows sometimes they might just get caught and carried away by a small river.

Yamanaka’s testament was hard to digest, and maybe that’s way there’s so little about him on the internet. We can often hear discussions about him, while few wrote something about him, like the aforementioned Keiko McDonald, or articles posted by Jasper Sharp and books by Donald Richie. Eureka’s boxset helps those who want to explore Yamanaka’s life, with a 44 page booklet on which are featured writing by Yamanaka himself, director Shinji Aoyama, Kimiotoshi Sato and, to complete it, an essay by Tony Rayns. An outstanding boxset on a less famous director, whose work gains importance as an historical document because of the time when all of these movies were produced and shot, leaving us in front of a reality filled by fear and war, before a second big change would have shaped again the history of Japan.

The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka is available now on 2-idsc DVD from Masters Of Cinema/Eureka Entertainment.

About the author

FaustoV
Once upon a time in a country not so far away (named Italy) there was a Fausto who was always watching movies but without really loving them – until he saw some movies directed by some unknown guys like Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook and Takeshi Kitano.... More »
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