Sasuke and His Comedians (真田風雲録, Tai Kato, 1963)

Criminally unknown in the Anglophone world, where Tai Kato is remembered at all it’s for his contribution to Toei’s ninkyo eiga series though his best known piece is likely to be post-war take on High Noon made at Shochiku, By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him in which a jaded doctor finds himself caught in the middle of rising tensions between local Japanese gangsters and Zainichi Koreans. Kato’s distinctive visual style shooting from extreme low angles with a preference for long takes, closeups and deep focus already make him an unusual presence in the Toei roster, but there can be few more unusual entries in the studio’s back catalogue than the wilfully anarchic Sasuke and his Comedians (真田風雲録, Sanada Fuunroku), a bizarre mix of musical comedy, historical chanbara, and ninja movie, loosely satirising the present day student movement and the limits revolutionary idealism. 

An opening crawl introduces us to the scene at Sekigahara, a legendary battle of 1600 that brought an end to Japan’s warring states period and ushered in centuries of peace under the Tokugawa. Onscreen text explains that this is the story of the boys of who came of age in such a warlike era, giving way to a small gang of war orphans looting the bodies of fallen soldiers and later teaming up with a 19-year-old former samurai realising that the world as he knew it has come to an end. Soon the gang is introduced to the titular Sasuke who, as he explains, has special powers having been irradiated during a meteor strike as a baby. Recognising him as one of them, the war orphans offer to let Sasuke join their gang, but he declines because he’s convinced they’ll eventually reject him in fear of his awesome capabilities. Flashing forward 15 years, the kids are all grown up and the only girl, Okiri (Misako Watanabe), is still carrying a torch for Sasuke (Kinnosuke Nakamura) who dutifully reappears as the gang find themselves drawn into a revolutionary movement led by Sanada Yukimura (Minoru Chiaki) culminating in the Siege of Osaka in 1614. 

Don’t worry, this is not a history lesson though these are obviously extremely well known historical events the target audience will be well familiar with. A parallel is being drawn with the young people of early ‘60s Japan who too came of age in a warlike era and who are now also engaging in minor revolutionary thought most clearly expressed in the mass protests against the ANPO treaty in 1960 which in a sense failed because the treaty was indeed signed in spite of public opinion. Kato’s Sanada Yukimura is a slightly bumbling figure, first introduced banging his head on a low-hanging beam, wandering the land in search of talented ronin to join up with the Toyotomi rebellion against the already repressive Tokugawa regime. His underling sells this to the gang as they overlook a mile long parade of peasants headed to Osaka Castle as a means of bringing about a different future that they can’t quite define but imply will be less feudal and more egalitarian which is how they’ve caught the attention of so many exploited farmers. 

Of course, we all already know how the Siege of Osaka worked out (not particularly well for anyone other than the Tokugawa) so we know that this version of the 16th century better world did not come to pass the implication being that the 1960s one won’t either. The nobles are playing their own game, the Toyotomi trying to cut deals but ultimately being betrayed, while the gang fight bravely for their ideals naively believing in the possibility of victory. Sasuke, for his part, is a well known ahistorical figure popular in children’s literature and this post-modern adventure is in essence a kids’ serial aimed at a student audience, filled with humorous anachronisms and silliness while Kato actively mimics manga-style storytelling mixed with kabuki-esque effects. Boasting slightly higher production values than your average Toei programmer, location shooting gives way to obvious stage sets and fantastical set pieces of colour and light which are a far cry from the studio’s grittier fare with which Kato was most closely associated. That might be one reason that the studio was reportedly so unhappy with the film that it almost got Kato fired, but nevertheless its strange mix of musical satire and general craziness remain an enduring cult classic even in its ironic defeatism. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Tomu Uchida, 1959)

Chikamatsu's love in Osaka poster“Money is the enemy” a dejected geisha declares in an attempt to explain her desperate circumstances to a naive young man part way  through Tomu Uchida’s Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Naniwa no Koi no Monogatari). Before a wartime flirtation with the militarist far right, Uchida had been closely involved with the leftwing “tendency film” movement and his post-war work perhaps displays much the same spirit only with a world weary resignation to the inherent unfairness of human society. Chikamatsu, as cited in the slightly awkward English language title, was a Japanese playwright of the 17th/18th century who also specialised in tales of social oppression, most notably in frustrated romance and eventual double suicides.

Uchida’s masterstroke is that he retells Chikamatsu’s well known bunraku play The Courier for Hell and its kabuki counterpart Couriers of Love Fleeing to Yamato from the inside out. Among Chikamatsu’s most famous works the play was in fact inspired by a real life event which took place in Osaka (then known as “Naniwa”) in 1710. Uchida places the grumpy, worldweary figure of the playwright directly into the action as a powerless observer, trapped on the wrong side of the stage able only to observe and comment but, crucially, with the ability to remake reality in altering his tale in the telling.

The tale is familiar enough and possibly a little too close to that of Chikamatsu’s previous hits including Love Suicides at Sonezaki which is given a grim namecheck as events begin to mirror one of his plays. Our hero, Chubei (Kinnosuke Nakamura), is an earnest young man who has been adopted into the Kameya family with the intention that he will marry its only daughter and take over the courier business now being run by stern widow Myokan (Kinuyo Tanaka). Early foreshadowing reminds us that immense responsibility is regularly placed in Chubei’s hands and he must remain above suspicion. Embezzlement is a capital offence in the increasingly austere 18th century society.

Chubei is an honest man, but meek. Unable to risk offending a bawdy client, he allows himself to be bamboozled into the red light district where Hachiemon (Minoru Chiaki) buys him the prettiest courtesan in the place, Umegawa (Ineko Arima). Chubei tries to leave as soon as Hachiemon disappears but is convinced to stay by Umegawa’s entreaties that his sudden exit will reflect badly on her and possibly result in censure or punishment. Struck by her predicament, Chubei falls in love. He makes repeated returns, dips into his savings, and finally makes the fateful decision to spend money not his own when he discovers that a lascivious magnate has made an offer to buy out Umegawa’s contract.

Meanwhile, Chikamatsu hovers on the edges conducting “research” for a new play to save his failing theatre company which itself is suffering due to lack of monetary receipts seeing as audience members obviously prefer the heartrending melodrama of Sonezaki to the more artistic fare he’s currently running. Though he is obviously a frequenter of the red light district and its surrounding drinking establishments, Chikamatsu has a noticeably ambivalent stance towards its existence. His sympathy is instantly caught by the melancholy Umegawa when he notices her tenderly bandage the hand of a little girl who serves in the brothel, only to have her beautiful gesture of human kindness immediately mocked by the lascivious magnate who witnesses the same thing but chooses to ask her to repeat the act on him.

Chikamatsu was supposed to come to the teahouse in order to schmooze the magnate so that he will invest in the theatre company which perhaps generates an odd commonality between the playwright and courtesan both at the mercy of wealthy patrons who, one might say, are all money and no class. Umegawa, however, as Chikamatsu is painfully aware is in no way free and entirely dependent on pleasing men like the magnate whether she likes them or not. As she tells Chubei, Umegawa didn’t choose this line of work but people judge her for it anyway. She has no bodily autonomy and is bought and sold daily with no right to refuse. She is “merchandise” that “talks, laughs, cries, and gets angry” and the sole concern in all of her life is money which she now regards as “the enemy” for the subjugated position in which the need for it has placed her.

Of course, the playwright (our stand-in) has been listening all along. He too would like to free Umegawa from her torment, but he is powerless and can only blame the world that created the circumstances that trap her. Chubei is no hero either, he is weak and feckless even if his eventual willingness to damn himself by embezzling other people’s money (and ruining his adopted family in the process) proves the depth both of his love and of his rage at the social injustice which prevents him from pursuing his romantic desires. Chikamatsu can’t save his fatalistic heroes, but he can create a more fitting vision of their love imbued with all world nearly grandeur of tragic romance that returns our eyes to the cruelty of the world that wouldn’t let them be. A stunning final shot pulls us from Chikamatsu once again in the background as he watches his own play onto the other side of the stage and then back again as the playwright’s eyes burn with silent rage and impotence as he offers the only kind of resistance he can in the face of a cruel and indifferent society.