It's one of the three surviving films of Sadao Yamanaka. I've talked about him before. He's the guy who died young in Manchuria after being drafted into the Imperial Army.
On top of that though, it's also a Tange Sazen film. This is a samurai with one eye, one arm and a bad attitude. He made his debut in a serialised novel in Mainichi Shinbun in 1927 and was immediately so popular that the following year three different movie companies released multi-part movies about his adventures. This particular film is Denjiro Okochi's fifth attempt at the role and he'd be playing him, on and off, for another twenty years. There have been plenty of others, though. There was even a female Sazen, played by Komako Hara, in two films in 1937. Some of these have been violent action movies, dwelling on the swordplay and the political corruption. Some have been remakes, with the 2004 one apparently being nearly a shot-by-shot remake of Yamanaka's in 1935.
What makes this one different though is that it's a comedy. In fact it's nearly a parody of the earlier films and apparently the original author was upset enough to complain to the studio.
The plot involves the Yagyu clan's search for their family treasure. Grandad buried a million ryo somewhere, hid the map by painting it on an old pot and then died. He's probably lucky he's dead, because otherwise his kin might have murdered him. Fortunately they find out while the pot's still technically in the family and before anything bad can happen to it... but of course they're all greedy sons of bitches, so they keep trying to get the pot for next to nothing without telling its latest owner its true worth. Of course the inevitable happens. Before long you've got a chain of pride and greed leading to entirely avoidable and silly consequences.
This is apparently a good film. I say "apparently" because I personally wouldn't call it a favourite. The first problem is that I'm identifying it as a comedy through textual analysis. Supposedly noble characters are sleazebags. The film has a satirical approach to the world, with its characters' actions being driven by the desire to grab money, slack off, hang around with girls or otherwise just generally be dicks. This is clearly not high tragedy, but on the other hand it didn't make me laugh very much. This is probably connected with the second problem, which is that I basically didn't care. All these characters are being scummy to each other and none of them is likeable. A child gets orphaned because his father was a world-class twat. Yakuza are annoying morons. Admittedly Tange Sazen and the geisha he lives with aren't quite so objectionable and they even do a noble thing in looking after a small child, but they're also grumpy bullshitters who keep saying one thing and then doing another.
That child is theoretically the heart of the movie. It's only due to him that we see anyone doing anything altruistic. However the child actor's been given very little to do and Yamanaka's basically using him as a stage prop that walks.
Oh, and the music's too loud. I can see that Yamanaka's use of incidental music is advanced for when the film was made, but that's not much help when I'm trying to listen to dialogue.
I've been negative about this film, but even given these factors it was still interesting. I like its disrespectful attitude. I like the way it's not compromising on its comedic vision, never stopping halfway in its mission to make its cast look like twats. I also particularly like the way it's not fetishising the violence of Sazen and other characters, but instead making these people look stupid in the way they'll wave their swords at each other and think they're big men. There's a big laugh towards the end in a duel in the dojo, for instance. What a bunch of bullshit artists. No matter what else I might be saying, this is still a distinctive piece of cinematic storytelling from a director with a strong point of view. If nothing else, as far as I can tell this is the most celebrated Tange Sazen film.
All those "de gozarimasu" deferential speech patterns with important people made my teeth itch, though. This is crashingly insensitive of me and concerns the Japanese language and culture rather than any fault of this particular film, but what the hell. I wanted the guy either to shut up or talk like a human.
Did I like this one? Not enormously, although it's okay. It felt longer than its length, if you know what I mean. It's a bit of a shaggy dog story, although that's only the pot-hunt and in contrast the stuff with Tange Sazen and the boy has a bit more meat on it. It's also toweringly cynical, if not actually pointed, and its style of humour is deadpan, although as I've said it gets funnier at the end. A film with personality.