The second of the only three extant films directed by Sadao Yamanaka in his intense yet brief career, Kochiyama Soshun (河内山宗俊, oddly retitled “Preist of Darkness” in its English language release) is not as obviously comic or as desperately bleak as the other two but falls somewhere in between with its meandering tale of a stolen (ceremonial) knife which precedes to carve a deep wound into the lives of everyone connected with it. Once again taking place within the realm of the jidaigeki, Kochiyama Soshun focuses more tightly on the lives of the dispossessed, downtrodden, and criminal who invoke their own downfall by attempting to repurpose and misuse the samurai’s symbol of his power, only to find it hollow and void of protection.
The primary players are the virtuous and innocent Onami (Setsuko Hara) who runs a small sweet sake stall and her errant young brother, Hiro, who spends all of his time in a local drinking establishment run by the wife of the titular Kochiyama Soshun. Despite his priestly get up, Kochiyama is a conman, swinder, gambler and petty gangster but for some reason he takes a liking to Hiro not knowing that he’s Onami’s brother because he’s been using the fake name of “Nao” to prevent his sister tracking him down and bringing him home again. There’s a bigger criminal outfit in town run by a guy named Morita but mostly everyone knows Kaneko who comes and collects his protection money. Kaneko also has something of a crush on Onami and generally lets her off the payments.
Everything starts to go very wrong when Hiro pinches the dagger of a careless samurai. It turns out that the sword and dagger set were a gift from his lord who received them from the shogun so this loss is particularly embarrassing and if he were asked to produce the dagger but couldn’t, he’d be duty bound to commit harakiri. Hiro gets himself into even more trouble when he spots a childhood friend working in the red light district and tries to run off with her. If things weren’t difficult enough, Onami is now firmly pulled into his web of trouble as Morita’s gang want the compensation money for the loss of their girl, a sum so vast there is no way Onami could ever be able to repay it leaving her with only one, unthinkable, option.
Everything here is pretence – the “priest” who cheats and gambles, the young man who uses a fake name, the samurai with no real power, and the dagger itself with its uncertain authenticity. Onami is the only true and honest thing in the entire film, unsullied by the meanness of the world which surrounds her, yet even she finds herself sucked in by the reckless actions of her brother. She too becomes a commodity to be bought, traded, and sold, placed as a bargaining chip between the competing forces of Kochiyama and Kaneko. Kaneko, though he works for the “bad guys” is not a bad man (more mirroring) and has a noble heart unwilling to carry out the service of his master when it conflicts with his own desire for justice.
Onami’s essential goodness has infected both of them as they now see that they have lived morally disappointing lives but have also been given a chance for a final bid at redemption, albeit in the service of an idiotic, self centred teenager whose selfish and reckless actions have destabilised the lives of everyone around him. The film ends on a note of uncertainty as one character is permitted to escape with the means to save another in hand, paid for by the sacrifice of others, but whether they will be in time or opt to selfishly run away is very much open for debate.
In a more serious mood here, Yamanaka is less playful than in the more obviously comic Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot but nevertheless continues to push his art to the visible limit. Like Tange Sazen, Kochiyama Soshun is an ensemble led film but its plotting is far more intricate and involved. It’s possible that the film is incomplete, but events often seem hard to follow and we only learn of one extremely important incident during a throwaway conversation between two characters who clearly don’t know its import. Even so it’s no great hardship to piece things together as we go, and Yamanaka makes sure to draw his characters well enough that it doesn’t really matter. Even if the weaker of Yamanaka’s surviving films, Kochiyama Soshun is another characteristically innovative piece filled with wry humour but a fair degree of warmth too.