Night Drum (夜の鼓, Tadashi Imai, 1958)

night-drumThe works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon continue to have a large influence over Japanese drama even if not as frequently and directly adapted as they were in the immediate post-war period. Famous for tales of tragic love suicides and romantic heroes who risk all in the service of deep emotion, Chikamatsu’s works perhaps found even greater resonance in the turbulent years in which individual freedom and adherence to tradition found themselves in even greater conflict than ever before. Tadashi Imai makes the most of Chikamatsu’s melancholy fatalism to take a sword to the samurai order itself with all of its arcane rules and the essential hypocrisy which underlines its cruelty.

Hikokuro Ogura (Rentaro Mikuni) has been in Edo for a year with the shogun and is now on his way home. Stopping at an inn, he has a low level argument with his brother-in-law who warns him the men are getting restless and need to blow off some steam – preferably with some sake. Hikokuro is in charge of the purse strings and knows all of this pageantry costs money the clan do not quite have – hence, he’s reluctant to fritter it away on alcohol no matter how much the men might resent him for it.

That’s not to say Hikokuro is a particularly officious person, he’s kind and cheerful by nature but also tired and eager to get home after such a long time away. His wife, Otane (Ineko Arima), is very happy to see him but something seems different about her and there’s a tension in the air among some of the other women. It seems, there are rumours about Otane and a travelling musician (Masayuki Mori) who frequented the house during the summer while Hikokuro was away. Rumours are often just that, especially in these petty circles of nobility, but female adultery is punishable by death and so is not something to be gossiped about idly.

Night Drum (夜の鼓, Yoru no Tsuzumi) begins with the ominous sound of the drum itself, beating out the inevitably tragic fate of all concerned with a melancholy fatality. The tale proceeds in a procedural fashion as the authorities become involved, hearing witness testimonies and trying to discover if there could be any truth at all in these unpleasant rumours. Matters are further complicated by the pecuniary difficulties the clan currently finds itself in – the elders are half hoping it is true because it would be a good excuse to expel the Ogura household and thereby save the money which goes on its upkeep. They are aware, however, that they’re talking about the life of a previously unblemished woman as well as the ruin of her extended family.

The life of a retainer is not as easy as it sounds and we’re constantly reminded of just how much money is necessary to keep up appearances. The clan authorities are dismayed when they hear of Otane earning money on the side through needlework though other retainers are quick to confess their wives also help out – they just can’t survive on such meagre stipends. Each lord is required to hire servants as befits their status but they aren’t given the money to do so. Hikokuro is also required to serve the shogun in Edo every other year for at least twelve months meaning Otane is left alone at home with almost nothing other than her needlework to do except wait patiently for her husband’s return.

Given these circumstances, it’s easy to understand how such pernicious rumours might begin. The sole basis of the evidence seems to rest on a tip off that Otane is thought to have been alone in a room with a man who is not her husband. That she may be put to death solely for the crime of sharing the same space as someone of the opposite sex seems extreme, but this is the feudal world where rules and propriety are all. The men can cavort with geishas to their heart’s content, but Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

The action unfolds piecemeal as each of the various witnesses offers their testimony of events. Given the gravity of the situation, few are eager to recount their suspicions – especially the other women who fear the rumour may be true but are also unwilling to believe it. Hikokuro does not want to believe it either but faced with such convincing, if circumstantial, evidence doubt creeps into his mind and finds an anchor in Otane’s guilt ridden behaviour. Ironically, this entire situation developed only because of Otane’s attempts to avoid it – remaining at an inn rather than travelling with a man on the road only for one of her husband’s friends to attempt to rape and blackmail her. Having had far too much to drink in an attempt to steel her nerves and cover up the embarrassing assault, Otane finds herself at the mercy of man who should have known better than to take advantage of another man’s wife in such a moment of weakness.

One stupid mistake born of alcohol, loneliness, and a series of male betrayals is enough to bring down the social order all on its own. Rentaro Mikuni plays the part of the previously affable wounded spouse with an exceptional level of nuance as he accepts his part in his wife’s downfall thanks to the the circumstances of their lives which have kept them apart and left her at the mercy of untrustworthy lords. There is anger here, and shame, but there is still love too which only makes the inevitable outcome all the more painful for everyone concerned. Hikokuro plays the part he’s expected to play, but it pains him and you can’t wipe a slate clean with blood. Imai has his eyes firmly on the civilised society with all of its rigid yet often cruel and unfair rules for living. Shot with a kind of hypnotic dreaminess in which each of our unfortunate players is swept along by events they are powerless to influence, Night Drum beats out the death knell of those who allow their individual desires to overwhelm their “civilised” conformity but it does so with a rhythm that is filled with anger rather than sorrow, for those who are forced to leave half their lives unlived in maintenance of the very system which oppresses them.


 

Snow on the Blades (柘榴坂の仇討, Setsuro Wakamatsu, 2014)

Snow on the Blades 2Times change, and men must change with them or they must die. When Japan was forced to open up to the rest of the world after centuries of isolation, its ancient order of samurai with their feudal lords and subjugated peasantry was abandoned in favour of a more Western looking democratic solution to social stratification. Suddenly the entirety of a man’s life was rendered nil – no more lords to serve, a man must his make his own way now. However, for some, old wounds continue to fester, making it impossible for them to embrace this entirely new way of thinking.

Kingo is one such man who finds himself frustrated by history in Setsuro Wakamatsu’s adaptation of a novel by Jiro Asada, Snow on the Blades (柘榴坂の仇討, Zakurozaka no Adauchi). In 1860 (as we count it) he married a beautiful young woman and received a promotion as the bodyguard for his lord, Ii Naosuke. However, one fateful day his progressive master is ambushed by a rival clan making a pretence of arriving with a petition that needs to be heard. Kingo and his men fail in protecting their lord and though many of the survivors commit suicide in shame, Kingo is charged with finding the remaining perpetrators and exacting his revenge. His quest spans almost fifteen years of turbulent Meiji era history as he trudges all over Japan looking for rumours of men who no longer quite exist all the while a lonely wife waits for him at home, becoming the sole breadwinner for this new life of forced “equality”.

The man Kingo has been looking for, Naokichi, is also living an unfulfilling life, hiding from retribution but also from himself and his own remorse over the deeds of a young man whom he no longer recognises. He has the possibility of building a new life with a local widow and her sweet little daughter who’s taken a liking to him, but like Kingo he’s held frozen by the old ways and can’t quite allow himself to bring a woman and child into his life of shame and fear.

Both men have been left behind by history. Kingo is the more obvious relic with his anachronistic top knot and old fashioned Japanese dress but Naokichi is also unable to move forward until he faces his past. For much of the running time Snow on the Blades plays out like a conventional mystery or revenge tale with Kingo on the road trying to track down those who he believes wronged his master in an attempt to atone for his failures through vengeance, but all that awaits him at the end of his journey is a lonely grave. The problem is, he liked his lord who was good and progressive man, filled with kindness and poetic sentiments. His regret over not being able to save him is more than failed duty, it is also personal grief and guilt though he finds little comfort in pursing those he believes to responsible.

Having spent thirteen years striving for something Kingo suddenly finds himself adapting to the times and beginning to believe perhaps this isn’t what his lord would have wanted anyway. Both men, confronted by each other and by several different kinds of history, are forced to face themselves as they are now and as they were then and assess what all of these codes and honour systems are really worth. Snow on the Blades is often beautifully photographed and filled with scenes as lovely as any woodblock painting but, it has to be said, somewhat dull as its central psychological dramas fail to ignite. Impressive production values and universally strong performances from its high profile cast lift the film above its fairly generic narrative but can’t quite save it from its rather trite message and run of the mill period drama aesthetic.


The assassination at Sakuradamon or Sakuradamon Incident is a real historical event in which the Japanese Chief Minister Ii Naosuke was murdered by ronin samurai working for the Mito clan outside the Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle in 1860. Ii Naosuke was a leading proponent of opening up to foreign powers (albeit as a sort of defense mechanism) but made an enemy of just about everyone through his tyrranical actions and was a very unpopular figure at the time of his death though his image has now been somewhat rehabilitated.