The Young Boss (花笠若衆, Kiyoshi Saeki, 1958)

Hibari Misora takes on yet more Edo-era corruption in Kiyoshi Saeki’s musical adventure, The Young Boss (花笠若衆, Hanagasa Wakashu, AKA A Martial Crowd, Twin Princesses). A program picture director at Toei, Saeki mainly worked on jidaigeki and ninkyo eiga launching the Brutal Tales of Chivalry series, though he also became a frequent collaborator with Misora ironically enough mostly working on her contemporary films in which she often starred opposite Ken Takakura, representative actor in the noble gangster genre. Young Boss, however, is a jidaigeki musical adventure very much typical of those Misora was making at Toei at the time and once again finds her playing dual roles as a pair of twins separated at birth because of superstition and social stigma.

Opening and closing at a local Edo festival, the film introduces us to the second generation of Edoya Kichibei, Kichisaburo (Hibari Misora), as he steps in to protect a young woman who has accidentally annoyed a bunch of yakuza fulfilling his sidekick’s introduction that he “helps the weak and crushes the strong”. Kinpachi (Juro Hoshi) also describes him as a “man’s man”, though as we discover Kichisaburo is not a man at all but the niece/adopted daughter of a prominent merchant apparently raised as a boy. Kichisaburo, however, only learns this when a pair of samurai turn up to badger Kichibei about the whereabouts of his younger sister, Sano, who apparently served as a maid to the Ogiyama clan 18 years previously but was cast out with her younger daughter Yuki after giving birth to twin girls fathered by the lord. The other twin, Chiyo (also Hibari Misora), was raised in luxury in the palace and in the absence of a male heir and the lord’s failing health is in line to inherit the clan. As usual, however, courtly intrigue has led some to conclude that Yuki’s is the proper the claim. Kichibei attempts to convince them that Yuki passed away in infancy shortly after her mother and that he burnt her birth certificate, but the resemblance between the effete Kichisaburo and the lady Chiyo has not gone unnoticed both by the visiting samurai and the handsome Matanojo (Hashizo Okawa) who joins in with Kichisaburo’s battle against the yakuza and is in fact the betrothed husband of Chiyo. 

Lady Chiyo appears only briefly but is the soul of courtly kindness, hugely regretting what has befallen her absent sister and affirming that should she return she would instantly surrender her claim to the clan in guilt that she has been raised in such luxury when Yuki was cast out to live with strangers. The dual roles in a sense reflect a perfect whole, Lady Chiyo’s feminine elegance contrasted with the rough Kichisaburo who has not been raised as a samurai but a merchant’s son like his sister set to inherit the family business. He is very attached to his adopted father, but also possesses a strong sense of justice often ignoring his pleas to stop getting into fights. Other than perhaps to disguise her true identity, there is no real explanation for why Kichisaburo has been raised as a boy though it seems that there would have been a time the ruse came to an end, Kichibei sadly lamenting that perhaps he has been jealously attempting to keep the child he loved so much with him against her better interests but explaining that he would have found her a nice husband in time, perhaps like that gallant samurai Matanojo.

Teaming up with him for purposes of revenge and justice, Kichisaburo begins to develop feelings for Matanojo though Kichibei reminds him that a townsperson would be “unfit to be a samurai’s wife”. Most of Misora’s films in which she stars as a feisty young woman see her undergoing a softening, drawing closer to conventional femininity often with marriage or at least a romance with a manly man on the horizon. The Young Boss meanwhile flirts with just this conclusion as Kichisaburo becomes Yuki while out on the road with Matanojo, dressing as an elegant princess and experiencing a vivid dream sequence in which she becomes his wife, but ultimately highlights the class rather than gender barriers between them in allowing to Yuki to return to her previous life as Kichisaburo while Chiyo remains a samurai noblewoman in a seemingly perfect mirroring which also represents a return to order. 

Nevertheless, Misora finds numerous occasions for a cheerful song even in her manly guise finally even beating a taiko drum at the closing festival while joining in with several elaborately choreographed sword fights along the way with her customary gusto. A bittersweet ending, perhaps, but one in which Misora makes division of herself and unusually is allowed to remain feisty, defiant, and independent helping the weak and crushing the strong in an ever duplicitous Edo.


Musical number (no subtitles)

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (虎の尾を踏む男達, Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

Like many directors of his age, Akira Kurosawa began his career during the war sometimes working on what were effectively propaganda films yet perhaps attempting to skirt around the least palatable implications of the task at hand. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (虎の尾を踏む男達, Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi) is an example of just that, repurposing a well known historical incident from its noh and kabuki roots and subtly undercutting it with a dose of irreverent humour unwelcome to those who liked historical tales because of their nationalistic connotations. This was not, however, the reason the film found itself out of favour so much as an ironically personal issue in which Kurosawa had apparently irritated one of the censors by pointing out his ignorance of cultural tradition leading him to conveniently leave Tiger’s Tail off the list of titles in production resulting in the American Censors rejecting it for being an unknown, illegal film which is why it languished on the shelf for seven years after filming was completed in 1945. The Americans may not have liked it much either given their aversion to period drama which they feared encouraged the kind of thinking incompatible with the democratic era, but like many of Kurosawa’s samurai dramas it has a rather ambivalent attitude to feudal loyalty both admiring of nobility and despairing of its austerity. 

Set in the late 12th century, the action takes place during a period of warfare in which warrior Yoshitsune (Iwai Hanshiro X) has returned a victory for his brother, the ruler. His brother Yoritomo, however, feels as if his victory has perhaps been too good and he is therefore a threat to him. Yoritomo accuses his brother of sedition and puts a purge in motion, leaving Yoshitsune with no option other than to flee. With six of his best retainers, he escapes dressed as an itinerant Buddhist monk and tries to make his way to neutral territory in the North. To get there, however, they need to pass through a series of checkpoints which is why they’re currently accompanied by a cheerful fool in the form of a lowly porter (Kenichi Enomoto) supposedly guiding them along a secret path through mountain forests. 

The porter is a new addition to the story added by Kurosawa for reasons of expediency and comic relief, yet his intrusion is also one which deeply angered the more nationalistic of the censors who resented the director’s irreverence towards a key historical event. Like many other of Kurosawa’s bumbling peasants, he’s both contemptuous and in awe of the world of the samurai, offering down to earth common sense takes on the politics of the day. He has already heard all about the Yoritomo/Yoshitsune drama and recounts it in the manner of a soap opera, quite reasonably asking if a quarrel between brothers could not have been sorted out with a good old-fashioned private fist fight rather than a state mandated manhunt which is also quite inconvenient for ordinary people in addition to being somewhat heartless. 

The samurai, not wanting to break cover, can only look sad and lament the cruelty of their codes, yet it’s precisely in the subversion of their ideology that they are able to escape. They have already transgressed, some with shaved heads and all already in the clothes of a monk. The porter looks at Yoshitsune, apparently a successful warrior, and remarks on his delicate physique and seeming femininity. Eventually he says too much, realises that the men are the fugitives everyone’s looking for and is suddenly afraid, forgetting for the moment that they need him to get out of the woods and knowing that samurai think nothing of killing “insignificant nobodies” like him. Nevertheless they do not kill him, but on hearing that there are lookouts on the horizon aware of Yoshitsune’s presence, they ask their lord to change places with a peasant, wearing his worn out clothes and carrying his heavy pack though the weight of it perhaps betrays him. As the porter points out, he does not have the look of a man used to trekking through the mountains and his delicate legs are already shaking under the unfamiliar strain. 

When the band is intercepted by loyal retainer Togashi (Susumu Fujita) who has been instructed to stop all priests in case Yoshitsune comes his way, Benkei (Denjiro Okochi), a real monk if also a warrior with a talent for bluff, manages to talk his way out of Togashi’s questioning, improvising an entire prospectus on the spot to convince him that they really are collecting money to repair a temple, quickly explaining that his robes are ornate because even ascetics have fashion sense. It’s not entirely clear if Togashi simply believes him, or if he too is wilfully subverting the code having recognised Yoshitsune and decided to help him escape. Might that not, in a certain sense, be the better way of serving a lord, preventing him from making a huge and painful mistake in killing his own brother out of a misplaced sense of paranoia? 

In any case, Benkei talks his way out of trouble only for a minor retainer to intervene, insisting that the porter is too pretty and bears a striking resemblance to Yoshitsune. Reacting quickly again, Benkei does the unthinkable. He strikes his lord and loudly berates him as if he really were a lazy porter failing in the duties for which he has been paid. The real porter becomes upset, placing himself in between Benkei’s staff and Yoshitsune’s body, either out of empathetic identification or horror in the betrayal of feudal loyalty. Benkei knows he must now be believed, no one would ever do what he has done because it is a complete and total negation of the samurai code. Yet in breaking it he saves his lord, which is all that really matters. Yoshitsune later forgives him, because he is a good lord after all and how could he not. But as Benkei was keen to keep pointing out, this isn’t the only checkpoint they must pass and their journey is without end, all they can do is “continue without rest”, taking this brief moment of unexpected levity provided by apology wine from Togashi and the hilarious antics from the porter before setting off once again. As for the porter, he is soon abandoned, left on one side of the samurai divide as the curtain closes on this brief strange tale. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Mr. Shosuke Ohara (小原庄助さん, AKA Ohara Shosuke-san, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1949)

vlcsnap-2016-09-25-01h34m07s636Ohara Shousuke-san (小原庄助さん) is the name of a character from a popular folk song intended to teach children how not to live their lives. The Ohara Shosuke-san of Aizu Bandaisan has lost all his fortune but no one feels very sorry for him because it’s his own fault – he spent his days in idleness, drinking, sleeping in, and bathing in the morning. The central character of Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1937 film has earned this nickname for himself because he also enjoys a drink or too and doesn’t actually do very much else, but unlike the character in the song this a goodhearted man much loved by the community because he’s a soft touch and just can’t refuse when asked for a favour. An acknowledgement of the changing times, Shimizu’s Mr. Shousuke Ohara is a tribute to the soft hearted but also an argument for action over passivity.

If you turn up one day and ask for directions to the Sugimoto household, everyone will look at you with confusion but if you ask for Mr. Shousuke Ohara everyone will gladly walk you over and introduce you. Saheita Sugimoto (Denjiro Okochi) is the head of a once proud samurai household but his fortunes are far from those of his ancestors. Despite his pecuniary difficulties, Sugimoto is good hearted man who wants to help everyone that he can (out of a sense of altruism rather than duty or vanity). Consequently he is deeply in debt and nearing bankruptcy yet he can’t give up any of his three vices – drinking, gambling, and generosity.

The nature of the changing times is at the centre of this 1949 film. As Sugimoto is fond of telling people, his noble house used to stand for something but all of that historical influence is next to meaningless now. Though Western dress is not uncommon, the village is pretty much as it’s always been – children play in the fields and Sugimoto travels everywhere by donkey. Other than the tale of Sugimoto’s fall from grace, the central narrative concerns an election for a new village chief. Yoshida, a youngish man, wants Sugimoto’s support for his election campaign. His main campaign policy is modernisation – the introduction of electricity, modern transportation and communications, as well as greater cultural involvement starting with opening Western style ballroom dance classes for the children. Unfortunately his policies are not that firm and his motto seems to be “I’ll do that first!” to all aspects of his plan which is not very encouraging but still the desire is very much to move away from old fashioned village life towards a more sophisticated urbanism.

This of course also means an end to the inherited influence of idle nobleman such as Sugimoto. Though he’s a kind man who likes nothing other than helping other people, Sugimoto has been a passive steward, more consumed with his own idle pursuits than with making an active attempt at leading the village. This passivity has contributed to his downfall as he’s neglected the business of maintaining his own fortune. After taking out numerous loans which he only ever uses to help the villagers, Sugimoto has let the estate which ancestors founded, and which he was supposed to look after in the names of all that have gone before and all were to come after him, slip away. The ultimate failure and a disgrace to his ancestors, this loss of the ancestral home is an unforgivable betrayal yet there is something in Sugimoto which seems to regard it as right and proper that it should go.

Change is coming to the village, even if it isn’t coming with the speed that a young man like Yoshida may be hoping for. Change is also coming to Japan which is in the progress of rebuilding itself anew following long years of folly followed by confusion. There is no room for genial idleness anymore. “If you can work honestly with your hands you can make a living”, Sugimoto tells two would-be-burglars that he invites in for a drink as a apology for not having anything left for them to steal, but means the advice more for himself than anyone else. It’s time to say goodbye to Shousuke Ohara and the burden of inherited privilege and chart a new course as Seihata Sugimoto. Finishing on another of Shimizu’s much loved road shots, Sugimoto, like his nation, walks confidently along the road to an uncertain future yet he is not alone as he goes and may make something of himself yet.


 

Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (丹下左膳余話 百萬両の壺, Sadao Yamanaka, 1935)

million ryoSadao 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.


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