June 4, 2013

The history of Japanese cinema can never completely be told. It is estimated that 90 percent of its pre-1945 film output was lost or destroyed, the silent era razed in the 1923 Kanto earthquake, and Allied firebombing in WWII incinerating the rest. One of the most tragic casualties of this cultural obliteration are the films of Sadao Yamanaka, of whose 27 features only 3 survive. A galvanizing figure in the 1930s, he was a passionate cinephile and member of the Narutaki Group of Kyoto that sought to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. His films bring the heroes of pulp novels and kabuki theater down to earth, into sake bottle level views of the everyday lives of the working poor. They speak in modern Japanese, in dialogues modeled after his drunken late night conversations with the Narutaki Group. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.”

He took flak for turning the popular nihilistic samurai Tange Sazen into an irritable layabout, but he gained fans and friends from peers like Yasujiro Ozu. He died at the age of 28 as a military conscript in Manchuria, from an intestinal disease.  The  Masters of Cinema label has released his surviving works in a two-DVD set : Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (1935), Kochiyama Soshun (1936) and Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937).

Yamanaka was born on November 7, 1909 in Kyoto. As written in the informative Masters of Cinema booklet by Kimitoshi Sato, Yamanaka was the last of seven children. His father was a “master fan craftsman” who passed away from a brain hemorrhage when Sadao was 16. He was hired by the Makino film company two years later, on the strength of an essay he wrote in high-school, “Kyoto and the cinema industry”. He worked as an assistant, although lazily. He was nicknamed “lamp in the daylight”, a boy with a lantern jaw who according to an actor on set, “did nothing, he just stood around.”

The young Yamanaka took this standing around as an artistic credo when he moved into features at Nikkatsu. The three films that survive are group portraits of hanging out and doing nothing. Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot is the third film in a series originated by director Daisuke Ito. Ito left the studio, who gave the assignment to Yamanaka. Originally a serial novel following the vengeful exploits of a one-eyed ronin (masterless samurai), in One Million Ryo Pot Yamanaka and screenwriter Shintaro Mimura (a Narutaki Group member) turns the wandering warrior into a splenetic loafer who hangs out at an amusement parlor. The writer of the novel, Fubo Hayashi, asked to have his name taken off the credits.

Sazen (reprised by Denjiro Okochi) spends his time listening to his girlfriend sing while laughing at the suckers who pay to lose at an archery game. His life of lassitude is interrupted when one of the parlor’s patrons shows up stabbed, and asks Sazen to care for his child Yasu.  Yasu happens to be dragging around a dirty old pot which another passive aggressor is looking for. The black sheep of the Yagyu clan, Genzaburo (Kunitaro Sawamuro), believes the pot contains a map to an ancient fortune, and the search will give him an excuse to get away from his wife for awhile.

It’s a setup for madcap farce, but Yamanaka delivers it in an unexpected manner. The pot plot is a red herring, as neither Sazen nor Genzaburo have any intention of searching for treasure – they use the search as a way to create havoc outside, allowing them to lie down languidly inside.  His long-take long-shots group his performers in various states of repose, and while he does not focus in depth, he composes that way, with (in) action occurring in the far reaches of the frame. Even if he didn’t have the technology yet, Yamanaka was moving towards a deep focus aesthetic, which he would fully explore in Humanity and Paper Balloons.

But first there was Kochiyama Soshun (Priest of Darkness, 1936), based on the famous kabuki drama Kochiyama and Naojiro, first staged in 1881. Also scripted by Shintaro Mimura, it again scales down the heroic figures to human size, its Soshun not a dashing con man but a small-time shyster at a town fair who dresses like a monk, while the charming young heartbreaker Naojiro is turned into a petty thief named Hirotaro, whose theft of a knife sets the plot in motion. To fit his more naturalistic style, he didn’t use kabuki actors, but instead a few from the Zenshin-za theatre troupe, a left wing outfit that, as Tony Rayns writes in the booklet,  “developed a style of historical naturalism far removed from kabuki stylisation.”

The setting here is an expansion of Tange Sazen’s amusement parlor – here it is an entire street fair filled with hustlers. Hirotaro is drawn into Soshun’s gambling den, and raises cash by stealing a samurai’s knife. While the characters’ rejection of the pot’s treasures in Tenge Sazen guaranteed them a provisional stress-free happiness, it is Hirotaro’s obsession with material gain that tips Kochiyama Soshun into tragedy, causing a series of downfalls, including his sister’s (played by a young Setsuko Hara).

It is with Humanity and Paper Balloons that Yamanaka makes his masterpiece, in which he further elaborates his deep focus style as a trap for his feckless dead enders. Increasingly independent, Yamanaka got his favored acting troupe Zenshin-za to co-produce the film, and the performances are filled with aggrieved restraint. Again adadpted from a kabuki play, Shinza the Barber (1873), it follows the trials of one stretch of street in the tenement district. DP Akira Mimura shoots the alley head-on, the makeshift street in low light, with a flood of brightness at the end of the block. Mimura is a fascinating figure – he went to high school in Chicago (receiving the nickname “Harry”) and worked as a cameraman in Hollywood in the 1920s, including on Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930). After the war, he would be the first to film the aftermath of the atomic bomb attack, traveling with Lt. Daniel A. McGovern to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He worked as a DP until 1975.

In Yamanka’s world there is no more “way of the samurai”. It opens with a hanging suicide in which a samurai couldn’t commit ritual seppuku because he sold his sword for cash.  Sensing an opportunity for sanctioned debauchery, the neighbors decide to have a party – as the flyboys do in Howard Hawks’ Dawn Patrol and Only Angels Have Wings. Yamanaka’s professionals are lower on the social strata – they  sell bamboo pipe replacements and host underground gambling rings – but the response is the same, to deny death through celebration.

Unno (Chojuro Kawarasaki) is a poor ronin who spends his days dutifully pestering a friend of his dead father’s, who once promised help. His nights are spent lying to his wife and battling his alcoholism, and he slides into depression. He’s a walking corpse, the ghost of the suicide hanging over him. Shinza (Kan’emon Nakamura) is an ex-barber who hosts illegal gambling parties against the local gang’s wishes. He’s routinely beaten, but he doesn’t seem to care, coasting through life with a wry smile on his face, his life turned into a cruel joke. Shinza impulsively concocts the self-destructive plan to kidnap the adopted daughter of a merchant, which Unno aids him in through sheer inertia, their parallel paths to annihilation joining in this one ill-fated maneuver. Unno’s wife is gifted the final silhouette, her blacked out figure disappearing into brightness along the road.  Yamanaka rhymes this with the image of a paper balloon floating down a roadside river, a fragile beauty that will soon be lost.


  1. […] Sadao Yamanaka was a galvanizing force in Japanese cinema during the 1930s. He used his prickly sense of humor to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. He sought to dirty up distinguished drama and capture the dead-end reality of working class life. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.” He directed 22 films before being conscripted into the Japanese army, when he died of an intestinal disease at the age of 28 in Manchuria. Only three of his features survive, collected in this astonishing set from the heroic UK outfit Masters of Cinema (you must have an all region DVD player to view). Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot, Kochiyama Soshun, and Humanity and Paper Balloons raise hanging out and doing nothing into an art form. My Movie Morlocks review is here. […]

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