A noble-hearted samurai on the run falls for a fireman’s sister in Kiyoshi Saeki’s hugely enjoyable jidaigeki musical adventure Cantankerous Edo (大江戸喧嘩纏, Oedo Kenka Matoi). Another vehicle for Hibari Misora and samurai movie star Hashizo Okawa, Saeki’s wholesome drama finds its heroes not only standing up to the oppressions of a rigid class system but also taking on a bunch of entitled sumo wrestlers intent on throwing their weight around having apparently lost sight of the tenets of traditional sumo wrestling such as fighting for justice and having a kind heart.
To begin at the beginning, however, young samurai Shinzaburo (Hashizo Okawa) is on the run believing that he has accidentally killed another man who attacked him in order to clear the path towards his fiancée, Otae (Hiroko Sakuramachi), whom he wasn’t going to marry anyway because he realised she was in love with someone else and wanted to help marry him instead. Having escaped to Edo, he takes refuge inside a parade of firemen lead by Tatsugoro (Ryutaro Otomo) and his feisty sister Oyuki (Hibari Misora) who decide to take him in after hearing his story. Adopting the simpler, common name of “Shinza” he begins life as a fireman and gradually falls for Oyuki but remains a wanted man constantly dodging the attentions of his uncle, the local inquisitor, and the magistrates.
More a vehicle for Okawa than Misora who plays a relatively subdued role save for boldly stealing the standard and climbing a roof herself when the others are delayed, Cantankerous Edo takes aim not particularly at a corrupt social order but of the oppressive nature of class divisions as Shinza discovers a sense of freedom and possibility he was previously denied as a samurai while living as a common man. It’s this desire for personal autonomy and the freedom to follow one’s heart that led to his exile from his clan, unwilling to marry a woman he knew not only did not love him but in fact loved someone else and would have been forever miserable if forced to marry him out of duty alone. “The life of a samurai who has to be somebody or not to suit another’s convenience is utterly stupid” he bluntly tells his uncle and Otae’s father, “how you cling onto family status, heritage, and honour. All that fuss, I hate it.” he adds before turning to Otae and encouraging her too to stand up to her father and insist on marrying the man she loves rather than be traded to another.
Meanwhile, the two women exchange some contradictory messages about the nature of class and womanhood, the samurai lady Otae confessing that she isn’t sure she’s strong enough to fight for love in the face of tradition and filial duty in contrast to Oyuki’s spirited defence of Shinza the fireman insisting that firemen don’t think about such trivial things as name or family status before throwing themselves into harm’s way for the public good. “All women are weak” Otae sighs, Oyuki replying that they need to be strong for the men they love, “that’s what it means to be a woman”. Love may be in this sense a force of liberation, destabilising the social order but also a means of improving it, yet it still reduces women to a supporting role ironically as perhaps the film does to Misora who in contrast to some of her feistier performances takes something of a back seat.
Romance aside, the main drama revolves around a conflict between the local sumo wrestlers who have turned into thuggish louts under their boorish leader Yotsuguruma (Nakajiro Tomita), taking against the fireman and forever spoiling for a fight. The samurai proving unexpectedly understanding, the sumo wrestlers become the main source of oppression in usurping a class status they don’t really have. The noble Tatusgoro tries to stave off the fight insisting that they aren’t brawling yakuza but responsible firemen here to serve the public good and should save their energy for fighting fires rather than their obnoxious neighbours. Nevertheless the fight cannot be held off forever. Tatsugoro is forced to redefine the nature of “fire” after hearing a warning bell informing him one of his men is in grave danger unable to manage their anger anymore.
Saeki’s jidaigeki musical has surprisingly good production values for a Toei programmer, making space for a few songs along the way celebrating the valour of the firemen while Oyuki meditates on her potentially impossible romance and the perils of love across the class divide. While the conclusion may end up ironically reinforcing the hierarchical society, it does however make the case for the right to romantic freedom along with the necessity of human compassion in the face of inconsiderate arrogance and intimidation.
Note: This film is sometimes titled “Fight Festival in Edo” but according to Eirin’s database, the official English-language title is “Cantankerous Edo”. Rather confusingly, a very similar film with a very similar title (大江戸喧嘩まつり) was produced in colour at Toei in 1961 and is known as “Fight Festival in Edo” in English. Meanwhile, Hibari Misora also starred in another colour film with a very similar storyline in 1958 (唄祭りかんざし纏) which is known as “Girl with the Fire Banner” in English but listed as “Festival of Song” on Eirin’s database.