Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

Killing Yoshiwara posterHaving led a somewhat floating life, Tomu Uchida returned to Japan in only in 1953 after a sustained period with the Manchurian Film Cooperative followed by a brief flirtation with Maoism. Before the war Uchida had been closely identified with the Keiko Eiga movement of broadly left-wing filmmaking but later fell hard for the inherent romanticism of militarist ideology during his time in Manchuria. Nevertheless it was apparently the Maoist doctrines of progress through contradiction that influenced his later dramatic philosophy in which he came to think of narrative as a series of conflicts which culminate in an explosive act designed to resolve them (or not, as we will see). 1960’s Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Yoto Monogatari: Hana no Yoshiwara Hyakunin-giri, AKA Hero of the Red Light District) is perhaps a prime example as it takes a seemingly generic story inspired by a kabuki play and uses it to tell a melancholy tale of parallel yet mutually thwarted desires for vengeance against a cruel and oppressive society.

Ostensibly, our “hero” is Jiro (Chiezo Kataoka) – a successful silk merchant. A good and kind man, Jiro is beloved of all his staff for his careful consideration of them as people as well as employees. This concern is, however, perhaps not as wholly “good” as it seems. Jiro’s major problem in life is that he is an adopted child, taken in by his parents who auspiciously discovered him abandoned on the anniversary of their own child’s death. Jiro, apparently of noble birth, was abandoned because he has a prominent grey birthmark “staining” his face. This is the reason he has so far been unable to find a wife despite his good character and relative wealth. Desperately grateful to the couple who took him in “despite” his “imperfection”, Jiro feels this failure heavily in his current inability to provide them with a male heir to take over the family business.

Being good and earnest, Jiro has never dared to fritter money away in the red light district but is tempted when invited by a valued client whom he would not want to offend by refusing. Nevertheless, his first visit to the Yoshiwara is not an altogether pleasant experience as even the seasoned courtesans find it difficult to bear the sight of his “monstrous” face. Embarrassed, the innkeepers finally decide to employ a lowly servant, Otsuru (Yoshie Mizutani), who is not a trained courtesan but a woman convicted for illegal prostitution, to minister solely to Jiro. Otsuru does her work and is relatively unbothered by Jiro’s facial abnormality – something which endears her to Jiro’s heart and has the desired effect of hooking him through his weakness.

Otsuru, later “Tamarazu” the courtesan, is in many ways our villainess but she is also Jiro’s mirror and merely another outsider trying to escape oppression through any means possible. Uchida is careful to frame Otsuru not as a cruel and amoral adventurer, but someone who has decided to survive and can at least be honest about her intentions. We see her caged, imprisoned inside the Yoshiwara to do inside it what was declared “illegal” outside and acknowledging that she may well die here to met by a lonely funeral and rest unnamed in a communal grave. Otsuru decides that if she has to stay in the Yoshiwara then she will be its queen and then use that success to catapult herself into a more comfortable life even if she knows that it will be little more than a nicer kind of cage.

Jiro and Otsuru are each victims of the oppressive society in which they live as symbolised by the cruelly hypocritical worldview of the brothel owners who set out to exploit them both. Otsuru, worldly wise, is fully aware of the ways in which she is and will continue to be exploited but has chosen to be complicit within them as a means of effecting her escape. Jiro, meanwhile, is obviously aware that the “stain” across his face is the reason for his unhappy destiny but has only ever sought to minimise the distress his appearance causes to others. Thus he overcompensates by being relentlessly nice and infinitely humble, grateful for each and every concession which is extended to him as a fully human being rather than the “monster” which he is later branded by the innkeepers in a rare moment of candour which exposes their venial desires. 

This extreme desire for acceptance is in itself a symptom of his self loathing and internalised shame regarding his appearance which is after all merely an accident of birth over which he had no control. Abandoned by his birthparents who left him with a “cursed” destiny in the form of an unlucky sword, Jiro has been working overtime to overcome social prejudice but finding his path continually blocked. He latches on to Otsuru simply because she was nice to him without understanding the peculiar rules of interactions within the Yoshiwara, or as she later puts it “no money, no love”. Jiro ruins himself out of frustrated loneliness and a forlorn hope of repaying the debt he owes the couple who took him in by being able to provide them with a male heir to inherit the family business.

It is these mutual conflicts which eventually lead to the explosive finale hinted at by the violence of the title. Otsuru’s star rises while Jiro’s falls – not only is he fleeced by the innkeepers and an unrepentant Otsuru, his business also fails thanks to an act of God while his reputation lies in tatters once his associates get to know of his “frivolous” behaviour in the Yoshiwara. This in itself is doubly hypocritical as it was this same major client who introduced Jiro to the “pleasure” quarters in the first place only to remind him that business is a matter of trust and that they no longer trust him because he has broken his promise of keeping away from the Yoshiwara.

Pushed to the brink by successive humiliations, Jiro’s rage erupts in a singular act of violence which takes the sword not only to the Yoshiwara but the entrenched systems of oppression and exploitation which it represents. Otsuru, now an oiran, is literally trapped by her ostentatious outfit (in reality the very purpose it is designed to serve) as she struggles to escape male violence, her hand on the gate of the Yoshiwara which refuses to release her. Their parallel quests for revenge eventually converge only to defeat each other in a staggering act of futility which remains unresolved as the curtain falls on a moment of unanswerable rage.


Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (血槍富士, Tomu Uchida, 1955)

Bloody Spear Mount Fuji posterThere was a reason that the occupation authorities were suspicious of period films, but the jidaigeki of the post-war years are not generally interested in nationalistic pride so much as in interrogating the myths of the samurai legacy in order to pick apart the compromises of the modern era and the follies of the immediate past. Tomu Uchida had been among the most prominent directors of pre-war cinema but left to join the Manchurian Film Cooperative in 1942, remaining in China until 1953. Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (血槍富士, Chiyari Fuji) was his “comeback” film, brought into existence through the good offices of fellow directors Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu, and Daisuke Ito who had been the pioneer of samurai movies in the silent era. Like the later films of Masaki Kobayashi, Uchida takes aim at the hypocritical falsehoods of the samurai order and at a series of still prevalent social codes which oblige one human to oppress another in order to avoid acknowledging the fact that one is oneself oppressed.

Ironically enough we begin on the road to Edo as a goodhearted but compromised samurai, Sawaka (Teruo Shimada), makes the journey to the capital to make his name with a precious teacup in tow. He may be a samurai, but he’s making this lengthy journey on foot and accompanied by only two retainers – veteran spearman Genpachi (Chiezo Kataoka), and manservant Genta (Daisuke Kento). While on the road, the trio come across various other travellers including a shamisen player (Chizuru Kitagawa) and her daughter, a cheeky orphan who wants to be a samurai, and a melancholy father and daughter en route to visit a relative in the hope of financial assistance. There is also a notorious bandit on the loose going by the name of Rokuemon, which is one reason that the “recently wealthy” miner Tozaburo (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) is arousing suspicion with local law enforcement.

In contrast to many a jidaigeki epic, the travellers on the road to Edo are mostly good people if wise enough to be wary and on the look out for trouble. Genta and Genpachi have been given strict instructions that Sawaka is not to drink during the journey. Though he’s a nice enough soul when sober, Sawaka is a mean drunk with a tendency to start random fights and his mother doesn’t want him messing up his big chance by causing trouble on the road. This maternal solicitude can’t help but annoy Sawaka who overhears Genta complaining to a servant at the inn as he enjoys a quick glass of solo sake in the kitchen. There may be a sword on Sawaka’s belt, but he’s a middle ranker at best – something rammed home to him when the party is held up by a roadblock which turns out to be solely caused by three elite samurai having a picnic who wish to enjoy the view uninterrupted. Later he grips the handle on his sword in rage and desire to help a young woman in trouble before his hand begins to slip as he realises how little power he really has. The only thing to help her was money, and money is something Sawaka evidently does not have.

Sawaka’s “power” is entirely illusionary and dictated by the complex hierarchies of the samurai era. Breaking all the rules, he considers selling his “priceless ancestral spear” to get money to help the girl, but is told that the spear is a fake and hardly worth anything. With the help of the plucky little boy Jiro, Genpachi helps to apprehend a wanted criminal but it’s Sawaka who gets a commendation – something which causes him not a little consternation but his attempts to transfer the praise onto the rightful parties falls on deaf ears. In any case, the reward is just a piece of paper filled with more empty words and not much practical use to anyone. A fake spear begets a fake reward, he quips, becoming ever more disillusioned with the rights and responsibilities of the samurai order while somewhat romanticising the lives of the “ordinary” who might be more “free” in one sense but then Sawaka is never going to worry about being hungry or have to think about selling his daughter to avoid certain ruin even if he resents the ways in which is social class obliges him to affect coldheartedness.

Sawaka’s rejection of “samurai” values eventually leads to his downfall when an invitation to a servant to join him at his drinking table as an equal provokes outrage in a fellow nobleman who feels his own status threatened by this genial act of meaningless equality. Sawaka’s attempts to insist that he and his servant are both human beings only makes things worse and it doesn’t take long to figure out that he has picked the wrong battle if what he wanted was to strike a blow at samurai hypocrisy. Sawaka himself is no innocent in this game, terrorising a trio of peasants simply because one of them had an interesting nose and the drink was in him. Sawaka’s servant eventually pays the price for his mistake, bearing out his earlier frustrations with the chain of “shadows” that defines the samurai order and seemingly has no end.

Genpachi is the embodiment of the good retainer, but he’s also a kind and sympathetic man who takes an interest in the lonely orphan boy and, to a lesser extent, the shamisen player and her little daughter. The four of them form a kind of makeshift family, but the samurai order destroys even this small slice of happiness as the road prepares to force them apart. Having bloodied his spear but had his act of rage “approved” by the powers that be, Genpachi emerges broken and masterless, his fatherly attentions to Jiro relegated to a literal instruction not to follow in his footsteps and never to become a “spear carrier”, a mere tool at the mercy of a cruel and corrupt regime. Uchida begins in comedy complete with a whimsical contemporary score but makes clear that his ending is inevitable tragedy only made worse by the superficial rubber stamping that neatly sanctions the hero’s moment of madness as one perfectly in keeping with his moral universe.


Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji is available on blu-ray from Arrow Academy with a typically expansive feature commentary by film scholar Jasper Sharp including a minor digression into the career of director Hiroshi Shimizu – another sadly neglected figure of pre-war/golden age Japanese cinema. Other on-disc extras includes a series of interviews ported over from the French release – though it is nice to have them, it’s a shame that they are presented with the hardcoded French subtitles blurred out and English ones placed over the top which is less than ideal but perhaps cannot be helped. First pressing also includes a booklet featuring a lengthy essay by James Oliver which duplicates much of the information from the commentary while also situating the film within the context of Uchida’s career and the wider post-war world, as well as a complete filmography both for Uchida’s directing and acting work compiled by Sharp.

Short clip from an unrestored version of the film (no subtitles)