If you're familiar with the famous 1950s Japanese classics, this is nothing like them. They have a serenity, especially the period dramas. They're languid, telling their stories with a grace that's beautiful to look at. Admittedly Kurosawa's work has an immediacy you won't get from Mizoguchi or Ozu, but that's something that got him criticised in Japan for being too Western. Also his films are long. With this though we're returning to the mid-1930s, when Japanese cinema was still emerging from the silent era. Kochiyama Soshun is if anything too short, has jokes in it and seems more down-to-earth than the 1950s jidai-geki. It's not stretching your attention span. Indeed, on the contrary, you'll need to be giving it all your attention to compensate for not seeing all the plot.
Motivations are often left unexamined. People do things because... well, because they do. Coincidence drives the story, with one character kicking off the whole plot with something he doesn't think twice about. A character turns up out of nowhere for a scene less than three minutes long and commits suicide! The effects of this will turn upside-down the lives of everyone in the entire film, but we know almost nothing about her. Is the stolen knife a fake? No, it isn't! Yes, it is! No, it isn't! A character goes to do something terrible and then disappears from the movie. What you have to know about this film is that it expects us to read between the lines. Great chunks of plot happen offstage, while hardly anyone ever voices their feelings and allegiances. Furthermore, the cinematography and editing can be either reticent or abrupt on the rare pre-finale occasions when we're being allowed to witness something important (i.e. violent). It's not immediately obvious that the suicide is a suicide. There's a splash and we see ripples. Later a murder takes place, but on the other side of a door and furthermore we cut away so quickly that it's almost throwaway. I wasn't sure that there had even been violence, although the director's intention seems clear and the rest of the film soon settled that anyway.
"Languid" is the last word I'd use to describe all this. Minimalist, yes. Elegant, perhaps. However the results have a rhythm I don't associate with classic Japanese cinema and if you're not expecting it, scenes like that last one might be almost jarring.
The director, Sadao Yamanaka, died young. He's one of cinema's great "if-only"s. He got drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army and died of dysentery in 1938 in Manchuria. Today only three of his films have survived: The Million Ryo Pot
(1935), Kochiyama Soshun (1936) and Humanity and Paper Balloons
(1937). However while he was working, he was one of the so-called Narutaki group who were passionate about films from all over the world and wanted to modernise the Japanese movie industry with lessons from Hollywood. It's been said that this film draws on John Ford's 3 Bad Men (1926), for instance. Yamanaka helped invent the jidai-geki (historical drama) and had a reputation for originality and for making films about social injustice.
This film's almost modern in its informality. It's a historical drama, but an everyman one. This is a world of goofs, clowns, thieves, cheats and professional gamblers, where a samurai's obligation to commit suicide is a source of gags rather than machismo. People bicker over money, have really stupid arguments and chat up girls. This is actually a bigger deal than it sounds, since Yamanaka's effectively subverting the chambara (sword-fighting film). The samurai whose honour has been endangered is an ordinary middle-aged guy and the film's funniest character thanks to his reaction shots, while I also loved the auction idiots.
Most startling though is the range of Yamanaka's storytelling palette. He starts out with a film that's just plain fun, then takes us down some alien moral paths before ending up downright horrible... and it all feels seamless. The control of tone is remarkable, turning comedy into tragedy with the deftness one associates with Chekhov. It's also deceptively clever at storytelling details, such as ensuring we know the value of the money.
Sometimes it's like another planet. Suicide isn't a big deal, while the most important issue when faced with a woman selling herself is whether you'll be able to get 500 or 600 ryo for her. What certain people will do to themselves out of duty is stone cold horrifying. Then there's a scene where men with swords threaten to kill one of the female characters if someone else doesn't come out of a house, which looked like standard movie tough guy stuff and I hadn't thought for a moment that their random hostage might really be in danger. Mistake. Stuff like this is doubly shocking, by the way, because we'd been getting to know these people and thinking them regular guys. However there's nothing comfortable for a Western audience in the delivery of lines like: "The man who can die gladly for other person would be called a man."
It's based on a kabuki drama called Kochiyama to Naozamurai, based in its turn on a real figure whose name was Kochiyama Soshun. He's been done in lots of films and TV over the years, being something like a senior servant who lost his post at Edo Castle in 1808 and formed a band of outlaws. He was arrested in 1823 and died in custody, but there's no surviving record of the judgement against him. Thus writers can turn him into anything they like, from Robin Hood to the Godfather. Don't expect much connection in Yamanaka's film to any of that, though.
I could hardly follow a word, though. It could have been worse since I'd been half-expecting the "entire sentences in a single syllable" kind of line delivery you often get from men of an older generation, but even so casually naturalistic acting and a hissy soundtrack mean that even some Japanese audiences might want subtitles.
The acting's solid, plus fully up to speed with 1936 standards instead of having one foot in silent era ham as you'd have expected in 1931 Hollywood. The most famous name here is a young Hara Setsuko and it has to be said that the women are the most striking characters in the film. I was particularly startled by how the sister stands at the door. You'll see what I mean. There's some powerful stuff here with the ladies, from the suicide to the slap and the serious bitch work from Mrs Marital Disharmony.
This film gets more impressive in my memory the more I think about it, although it's hard work following its story. You'll want to watch it once, think about it hard and then probably watch it again. The good news though is that it's easily good enough to reward you for doing this. It's like watching three or four films at once, with only one or two of them conforming to the stereotypes you might have of classical Japanese cinema and Yamanaka sliding between them so seamlessly that you'll hardly notice him doing it. It's disturbing, although a lot of that's probably just me being a 21st century Westerner. It ends with a powerful bit of self-sacrifice, although I thought it would have been more effective if they'd cut the big reaction at the end. The film has its heartfelt scenes, but personally I was just as struck by how light it often is, especially in the first half. Samurai go to fight and it's played for laughs, while there's something almost Monty Python about the frog chorus of the knife auction.
I'd recommend this quite strongly. Much more supple and surprising than I expected.