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Japanese Beat Cinema Part 3: Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den

Our journey through the world of 1950s-era Japanese Beat Movies continues this week with Yuzo Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyo-den. This was voted the 4th Best Japanese Film Ever Made by a critic’s poll from Japan’s leading cinema journal, and personally I think that may be even underselling it a bit. This is something ya gotta see, but that means tracking it down. For those of you in the UK or with the ability to play discs imported from the UK, that’s easy—seek out the Eureka/Masters of Cinema release and call it a day. But since that’s likely a small percentage of my readership, I’m sending the rest of you on a bit of a hunt. And you’ll find there a lot of different titles applied to this—all attempts to translate the title into English.

There’s Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, or The Sun Legend of the End of the Tokugawa Era. The Masters of Cinema disc opts for A Sun-Tribe Myth From the Bakumatsu Era. None of these are especially compelling, although the Masters of Cinema title comes closest, in my opinion. I’m generally in favor of translating titles into English—back in the days of video stores, it always used to drive me crazy when I browsed the “L” shelf to find all the French films thoughtlessly alphabetized there as if “Le” or “La” was the important word. A title is meant to be a marketing tool—a come-on to the audience, a label identifying the contents. If that title is incomprehensible, it cannot serve that purpose very well. A title like Bakumatsu Taiyo-den is hard to pronounce, hard to remember, hard to spell, and meaningless to most English-speaking viewers. But there are subtleties and nuances to the Japanese title that don’t translate well at all. In just seven syllables, Bakumatsu Taiyo-den efficiently signals (in Japanese) what you’re about to get: a mash-up of the “Sun-Tribe” genre of youth problem films (click back a couple of weeks to our discussion of Crazed Fruit for a refresher if needed) and the sword-and-topknot cycle of Samurai films (do you really need me to tell you what a samurai film is like?), specifically drawing the connection between the dawning of modernism at the end of the Samurai era and the uneasy postwar world of 1950s Japan. Oh, and did I mention it was a sex comedy?

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Into this stew, director Yuzo Kawashima has tossed a variety of ingredients, all chosen for their satiric power. For example, there’s samurai Shinsaku Takasugi, plotting to bomb the nearby barracks of American engineers whose intrusion into Japan he finds racially unwelcome. There’s a lot going on here—in part because Takasugi was a real person. He had witnessed Western colonialism in China and feared a similar fate for Japan if the influence of foreigners wasn’t vigorously resisted. Convinced the leaders of Japan were corrupt and liable to sell the people out, he defiantly formed a civilian army that he trained in terrorist tactics, leading to civil war. In other words, a potent historical reference to be bringing up in 1957 as Japan struggled to cooperate with the American conquerors to rebuild their society in a more Western image.

And what does Kawashima do with this lightning rod of a character? He casts Crazed Fruit star Yujiro Ishihara in the role, who plays him as an ignorant teenage thug. Far from being portrayed as the noble and impossibly mannered soldiers of honor that you may be used to seeing from, say, Kurosawa films, the samurai here might as well be a biker gang.

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Then there’s the character who is more or less the film’s protagonist (although you’ll likely be halfway through the movie before realizing this)—Saheiji Inokori. In the film, he is consistently referred to as “The Grifter,” and with good reason. Takasugi’s fear of foreign influences has him looking in the wrong places—instead of trying to bomb the American’s camp, he should be paying more attention to how Western capitalism is encroaching into his countrymen like The Grifter. Dead broke but endlessly industrious, The Grifter is a jack-of-all-trades willing to do anything for money. He is the consummate hustler—dishonest, selfish, but also clever, capable, and always one step ahead of everyone else.

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The film was based on a comic story called “Saheiji Who Stayed Behind,” which was a comic monologue intended to be performed by a single seated performer, telling stories to the audience. In Japan they called this kind of thing “rakugo,” and if it sounds like raconteur you’ve got the right idea. To play the role of Saheiji the Grifter, Kawshima cast Frankie Sakai, a veteran rakugo performer and up-and-coming comic actor. If you watch the same movies as me, you’ll recognize him as “Bulldog” the heroic reporter from Mothra. He’s more or less what would happen if you somehow combined Buster Keaton and Bob Hope in a teleporter accident and then time-travelled them back to Samurai times.

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And I haven’t even mentioned that the whole thing takes place in a legendary brothel. In one of the film’s daring moves, the opening titles swerve the action briefly out of the period setting to show what this red light district looked like in the present day of 1957, while a narrator explained the ongoing debate over legalized prostitution and the impending shuttering of the bordellos. The narrator then announces that the film actually has nothing to do with what he’s just spent several minutes describing, and everything jumps back about a hundred years. The point is made—despite the hand-waving, the film is most definitely about the present day more than it is about the 1860s. Think about the Samurai’s terrorist plot in terms of the American Occupation, think about the Grifter in terms of the ongoing Economic Miracle… And think about the whorehouse in terms of the modern-day debate about prostitution.

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In the liner notes to the Masters of Cinema disc, film critic Frederick Veith notes that the Sun-Tribe genre had a nasty misogynist streak to it. On the surface, the Sun-Tribe stories and films seemed to be slice-of-life stories about a new generation of disaffected teenagers, adrift with existential angst. But within that viewpoint, the Sun-Tribe stuff also repeatedly returned to ideas of sexualized violence, and the ways in which lusty teen boys can be driven to terrible acts by their urges. The Sun-Tribe films aren’t just about sex—they’re about the dangerous, murderous consequences of sex.

And Veith connects that with the debate on prostitution by noting that they are both rooted in the same notion that prostitutes provide an outlet for “boys will be boys”-sexual needs while keeping that behavior away from good chaste girls. To which Bakumatsu Taiyo-den says “phooey.”

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There is no glamorization of prostitution here—the geishas have eye infections and children, they get into fights, they lie and steal, they suffer crippling debts. And there is an unflinching acknowledgment of how many have been sold into this life by failed fathers. But there is a massive difference between being presented in an unflattering light and an unsympathetic one. The Grifter quickly finds common cause with the geishas—they’re all doing whatever it takes to get by, after all.

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Don’t mistake this for a feminist tract—Kawashima made so many films about brothels because he was a regular customer and naturally interested in that side of life. He was also an inveterate womanizer whose attentions to his female stars involved very little in the way of actual direction. To hear Kawashima’s apprentice Shohei Imamura tell it, Kawashima was also a lazy drunkard. How’s that for biting the hand that feeds you!

Regardless of the personal peccadillos that may or may not have grated on Kawashima’s coworkers, his work in this film is impeccable. The camera is a constantly roving character in its own right, and with a sprawling ensemble cast there is always a new rabbit hole for it to burrow down. No scene is every allowed to play out uninterrupted—the film is restlessly gliding through the brothel to observe every detail, every side story, every possible digression. Characters reveal their darkest and ugliest impulses, but the film never judges. There are no villains here—nor any heroes. Just a bunch of flawed, damaged people trying to exploit one another, and one who’s figured out the best way to do that.

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It is a farce (you can’t make a movie about so many people going through so many bedroom doors and not have it end up being a farce), and it is a barbed, prickly satire. In the opening shot we are introduced to a fancy Swiss watch that the characters variously steal, pawn, repair, and fuss over. Throughout the film it serves as a constant reminder of modern technology, the intruding Western world, and the unstoppable progress of time. Out of all these hungry, grasping people, there’s one guy who knows how to repair the watch. Like it or not, the future literally belongs to him.

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2 Responses Japanese Beat Cinema Part 3: Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den
Posted By swac44 : February 20, 2016 2:14 pm

Don’t know this film at all, but may be feeding it into my multi-region player soon. (Weirdly, on amazon.co.uk, the DVD is unavailable, but the blu-ray is a reasonable 13 pounds).

My favourite Japanese title translation of late is the discovery (thanks to Sir Christopher Frayling) that an early release of A Fistful of Dollars was given the Japanese title Son of Yojimbo to cash in on the controversy surrounding Sergio Leone’s borrowing of Kurosawa’s plot (which had already been borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest). Not sure how long that title stuck, once the series became better known around the globe following the later U.S. release.

Posted By Tom S : February 21, 2016 8:52 am

As I recall, part of the settlement for the Yojimbo thing is that Kurosawa actually got the profits from the Japanese release of Fistful of Dollars, so it’s kind of doubly appropriate.

In terms of getting your hands on these kinds of movies- Arrow has been working wonders lately, putting out all kinds of fun and strange Nikkatsu stuff from this general category, in ther Nikkatsu Diamond Guys, Stray Cat Rock, and Battles Without Honor or Humanity boxes, along with a whole lot of individual releases.

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