Sadao Yamanaka had a meteoric rise in the film industry completing 26 films between 1932 and 1938 after joining the Makino company at only 20 years old. Alongside such masters to be as Ozu, Naruse, and Mizoguchi, Yamanaka became one of the shining lights of the early Japanese cinematic world. Unfortunately, this light went out when Yamanaka was drafted into the army and sent on the Manchurian campaign where he unfortunately died in a field hospital at only 28 years old. Despite the vast respect of his peers, only three of Yamanaka’s 26 films have survived. Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (丹下左膳余話 百萬両の壺, Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo) is the earliest of these and though a light hearted effort displays his trademark down to earth humanity.
The plot turns on the titular one million ryo pot when the local feudal lord inconveniently discovers that an ugly vase with a weird monkey pattern is actually a hidden treasure map just after he’s palmed it off on his younger brother as a kind of family heirloom. The brother, Genzaburo, is both angry and insulted that his vastly wealthy brother has given him such a worthless gift rather than the money which he feels he is owed. An underling is dispatched to try and get the pot back but Genzaburo is so annoyed about it that the pot gets sold before he finds out its value. The peddlers who buy it don’t know either so they give it to a little boy to keep his pet goldfish in. Eventually the boy comes into contact with Tange Sazen who is a popular character of the time known for the scar across his eye and lack of one arm. Round and round the pot goes but where it stops, no one knows – though in the end, it’s not the pot or even the treasure that really matters.
There’s something quite amusing about the central irony that this whole mess started with a stingy rich old man accidentally cheating himself out of a vast amount of money that he really didn’t need in the first place. Genzaburo does seem more like the impoverished and subjugated kind of samurai, but still he’s not exactly starving and has a large staff to support him. His concern is more with the humiliation he feels in the way he is treated by his brother. Truth be told, Genzaburo is a feckless and clumsy man who knows he has little talent or ability and continues to sulk about it. He’s even subjugated by his wife at one point after she discovers how much time he’s been spending at the local geisha house leading to another embarrassment when he tries to sneak back in late at night and is beaten up by his own servants who assumed he was a thief.
Indeed, Genzaburo repeatedly utters that finding the pot could take ten or twenty years – like a noble quest for justice! The truth being that he loses interest in the idea of actually finding it because it would mean an end to his life of “looking for the pot” which allows him to spend all his time shooting arrows with the ladies at the bar. In essence, Genzaburo is the harmless, childish kind of second tier samurai who complains about harsh treatment and lack of status but at the same time enjoys a life of leisure, indulging his personal whims and ignoring his feudal responsibilities as well as his family home.
Tange Sazen, by contrast, is well known from various other kinds of media as a loose cannon swordsman and wandering ronin gambler but here he’s more of a gruff but goodhearted ne’er do well. He seems to be in a fairly solid but perhaps unofficial relationship with the no nonsense owner of the archery-parlour-cum-geisha-palace, Ofuji, and together (more or less, after a lot of arguing and refusing) they take in the orphaned little boy, Yasu, who, unbeknownst to all, is keeping his prized goldfish inside the very pot which everyone is looking for. In fact, Genzaburo and Tange Sazen have been sitting next to it all along but entirely failed to notice.
This is just one strand of the film’s deeply felt humour as everyone fails to see what is staring them right in the face. Yamanaka proves far ahead of his time employing comedic techniques including frequent uses of what would later become know as a “bicycle joke” in which a character swears they’ll absolutely never do something only for the film to cut to them doing exactly that. Tange Sazen and Ofuji bicker endlessly – particularly about Yasu whom they’ve both become quite attached to despite their claims to the contrary. In addition to the frequent wipes and dissolves, Yamanaka’s direction is resolutely forward looking and inventive which, coupled with a more naturalistic acting style, lend it an oddly modern air for a film completed in 1935. Humorous and heartwarming with a little social commentary thrown in, Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot is a wonderfully put together ensemble comedy which still proves hugely entertaining eighty years later.