Tochuken Kumoemon (桃中軒雲右衛門, Mikio Naruse, 1936)

Tochuzen KazoemonIt’s an age old question, but does being a great artist give you the right to treat other people terribly? Hopefully, most people would say no, it does not. Most “great artists”, however, may have a different opinion. The hero of Mikio Naruse’s 1936 biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (桃中軒雲右衛門, AKA Man of the House) is very much of the opinion that inflicting suffering on others, and thereby vicariously suffering himself (but not really because who cares about them), is the source of all his supposedly “great art”.

Tochuken Kumoemon was in fact a real person who died twenty years before the film’s release and had his heyday as a renowned yet scandal ridden performer of “rokyoku” in late Meiji. To brings things full circle and explain why perhaps his life was fit for cinematic exploration in the politically fraught atmosphere of 1936, it’s helpful to remember that Tochuken Kumoemon’s performances of such patriotic fare as the 47 Ronin helped to rouse nationalist sentiment during the Russo-Japanese conflict. “Rokyoku”, also known as “naniwabushi”, is a traditional art of narrative singing accompanied by shamisen which found favour with the militarists for its essential Japaneseness and hearty rustic vulgarity.

In any case, we meet Tochuken Kumoemon (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) on a train drawing closer to his planned return to Tokyo after having been forced to flee it eight years previously because of a sex scandal which led him to separate from his first wife, leaving a son, Sentaro (Kaoru Ito), behind, and marry Otsuma (Chikako Hosokawa) – his shamisen player with whom he is currently travelling. The troupe are supposed to be breaking their journey at Kozu, but for reasons unexplained, Tochuken Kumoemon decides to get off the train at Shizuoka and promptly disappears without a word to anyone. 

The disappearance is problematic on several levels, the first being that the stop was only engineered to allow Tochuken Kumoemon to visit his estranged son Sentaro. Some in the group posit that Tochuken Kumoemon has come down with a rare case of stage fright seeing as this Tokyo show will be his biggest to date, while others assume he is embarrassed to go back to the city because of the scandals which previously engulfed him there, and some believe he is simply conflicted about visiting the son he abandoned to run off with another woman.

Anyone who knows him, however, might be better placed to realise that the great Tochuken Kumoemon rarely has a reason for doing anything save that it pleased him to do so at the time. Nevertheless, what we discover about him as he tours the inns of Kozu throwing his money about like some crazed libertine, is that he apparently liked his life better when he was poor but is bravely suffering under the burdens of wealth “for his art”. In fact everything in Tochuken Kumoemon’s life is “for his art”, including the thoughts and feelings of those closest to him.

Tochuken Kumoemon’s story may be intended as a kind of militarist parable about a man who devoted everything of himself to a particular ideal, in his case art but for the militarists perhaps country. The major problem here is that Tochuken Kumoemon never particularly suffers himself, grinning broadly throughout, but forces others to suffer on his behalf while he extracts from them qualities he can use to enhance his performance. Pain may be good for art, but it’s rarely good for life, and most would find themselves questioning why it is those around him remain contented to suffer solely to facilitate Tochuken Kumoemon’s artistic fulfilment.

Loyal wife Otsuma begins to reconsider, bravely challenging Tochuken Kumoemon on the inauthenticity of his performances which, though growing in popularity, she feels to be increasingly hollow. She remembers the early days of their courtship which were apparently marked by a fierce competitive rivalry which proved artistically beneficial to them both before spilling over into other kinds of offstage passion which now appears to have cooled. Otsuma, now weakened as she finds herself succumbing to the later stages of consumption, something Tochuken Kumoemon refuses to acknowledge, fears that she is now unable to inspire him with her playing which is why he’s been up to his old tricks consorting with geishas. Claiming that Otsuma wouldn’t care about his affairs because she’s an artist too and will therefore “understand”, Tochuken Kumoemon has taken up with a pretty little thing, Chidori (Sachiko Chiba), from whom he intends to steal “youth and innocence” for his performances, little caring what he might leave behind.

For Tochuken Kumoemon everything is simply fuel for art and so he’s excused himself from the need to treat others with respect or kindness. Sentaro, his rejected son, rejects this aspect of his father’s philosophy, immediately bonding with his kindly step-mother and resenting his absent father’s treatment of her. In “raising” his son, Tochuken Kumoemon bangs on about traditionally “militarist” values of manliness, explaining that he is imperfect because he is a “great artist” and that his life has been full of problems but that he has overcome them with strength and perseverance. He tells his son that “weakness is the worst thing in a man”, but appears primed to hit the roof on learning that Sentaro may be expelled from school for fighting with his schoolmates because they mocked his unconventional family setup. Worst of all he casts his son away as one of the many who unfairly demand “perfection” from him even though he is an artist and cannot be expected to abide by the rules of “normal people”.

Meanwhile, Otsuma lies dying in a hospital. Tochuken Kumoemon won’t see her because he refuses to view her as “just a woman”, preferring to remember her as “a woman who lived only for art”. The subtext being for “his” art, rather than her own. He betrays himself when he admits that he “doesn’t want to be any more sad” than he is now, simply refusing to deal with the unpleasantness and personal suffering of facing the fact that someone important to you is in pain and will soon be gone. Yet despite a brief rebellion after an ill-advised gift from Chidori, Otsuma eventually agrees to sacrifice herself for Tochuken Kumoemon’s art, to die “quietly” as an artist and not as a woman. 

It’s only at this point that Tochuken Kumoemon decides to embrace the romance of the moment, finally travelling to her deathbed in order to sing a song. If Tochuken Kumoemon is a militarist hero, he’s not a particularly sympathetic one. He remains monstrously self-involved, hypocritical, an emotional coward who uses the suffering of others for his own ends with only the justification of the primacy of his art. Naruse undercuts the propaganda potential of the piece by painting his patriotic singer as a ridiculous prig who embodies the militarists’ coldness towards the thoughts and feelings of their fellow humans but displays none of their supposedly romantic heroism in his empty swagger and well worn platitudes. Is naniwabushi really worth all this pain? No. Someone needs to tell Tochuken Kumoemon he’s not as important as he thinks he is. And while they’re at it, they could have a word with the militarists, too.


The real Tochuken Kumoemon

Real TOCHUKEN KUMOEMON

Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yasushi Sasaki, 1961)

The post-war world was one of increasing globalisation which brought with it anxiety as well as hope as Japan readied itself to step back onto the world stage. The populist cinema of the early ‘60s is marked by ambivalent attitudes to international influences, not just towards creeping Americanisation and its perceived costs but perhaps somewhat uncomfortably towards the wider world and Asia in particular with the same old prejudices which had marked the previous 20 years rearing their heads once again. Voice of the post-war era, the films of Hibari Misora are, by contrast, about as forward looking and progressive as it was possible to be but Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yurei-jima no Okite) in which she plays a noticeably smaller part, is a bizarre exception in which a “lawless” melting pot outpost must be “civilised” by Japanese influences else the creeping rule of thuggish Asian gangs finally reach Japan “proper”.

We’re deep in the Bakumatsu. The Black Ships have already arrived and there is considerable political trouble brewing back in Japan. That’s not our immediate concern however because we’re on a creepy boat with slovenly ronin Yagi Hanzo (Hashizo Okawa) and a mysterious woman wearing a cheongsam (Hibari Misora). Fellow petty gangster and slave trafficker Bunji (Chiyonosuke Azuma) is suspicious of Hanzo, but decides he’s probably just an unlucky retainer on the run from something or other and might prove useful. Therefore, on arrival at Dragon Island, Bunji starts on trying to recruit Hanzo for his boss Chou Yang Po (Isao Yamagata), but Hanzo’s his own man and he hasn’t come here looking for a job. Fearing Hanzo is a government official here to bring the law down on all their heads, Chou tries to force him to harm a man they have in custody and believe to be working for the state. Hanzo gets round this by breaking a chair over the man’s back but leaving him otherwise unharmed, keeping his cover (if that’s what it is) firmly intact.

During his stay on Dragon Island, Hanzo will meet several other shady characters, many of them dressed in outfits more usually associated with the Chinese, Indians, nondescript “islanders”, and strange movie pirates, but what must be assumed is that though Japan “owns” this distant island it is unable to police it and as such it has become a den of scum and villainy in which various tribal gangs vie for hegemony and control over the lucrative smuggling hub which has unwittingly formed in direct response to Japan’s unwise policy of internal isolation which is itself at breaking point thanks to Perry’s Black Ships which we later hear are also on their way to Dragon Island.

Our key into this conflict is the crazed child of the leading gangster, Isakichi (Hiroki Matsukata), who dresses like a cowboy and likes to showoff his hard-won saloon credentials as sharpshooting libertine and all round party animal. Hanzo is not as impressed by this as Isakichi was hoping though an awkward sort of camaraderie eventually arises between them. Meanwhile, Isakichi has fallen in innocent love with the sister of his childhood best friend who is deep into a putative resistance movement hoping to end the stranglehold the smugglers have placed over the previously peaceful island.

Misora’s Madame Song, for some reason posing as a Chinese sex worker, hints at the various ways nothing is quite as it seems in her astute observations of the world around her, sensing that Hanzo is hiding something but also assuming that he is on the “right” side. There is conspiracy everywhere – the putative revolution at home is sending its shockwaves all the way out here as our unscrupulous gangsters try to procure guns to send to various sides on the mainland, while Madame Song ironically laments that what Dragon Island needs is to be more like Japan which is to say ruled less by law itself than an internalised acceptance of the proper order of things. Uncomfortably, it also probably means sending the people who aren’t wearing kimono somewhere else and trying to stop them tricking nice women from Kyushu into coming to tropical islands where they discover they’ve been trafficked into sex work and are unable to leave.

Among Toei’s lower budgeted efforts, Law in Ghost Island bills itself as a supernatural tale and does indeed open with a creepy scene of a misty boat but Hanzo doesn’t end up anywhere like the isle of the dead only a fantasy tropical “paradise” filled with zany movie pirates. Somewhere between pirate fantasy and western, Law in Ghost Island is closer to the kind of spy spoofs Toho would start producing in a few years’ time and even ends with a strangely comic scene in which just about everyone reveals themselves as spy for the same side during the climactic final shootout having been too busy playing spy games to figure any of it out before.

The final messages too are uncomfortable and ambivalent as Hanzo affirms that if there were more “good samurai” Japan would not become lawless like it is here while also claiming Dragon Island for the mainland in fear external forces may use it as a base to attack Japan. The smugglers pay heavily for their “treachery” in contributing to internal mainland chaos while the revolutionary islanders declare their intentions to make the island a better place, which mainly seems to mean making it more “Japanese” which is a fairly ambivalent message whichever way you look at it. Misora only sings two songs and is relegated to a minor mystery in the strange goings on of Ghost Island which features absolutely no ghosts or supernatural intrigue. It does however perhaps shine a light on a strange moment of cultural flux however how unflattering that mirror may turn out to be.


Brief clip of some of Hibari’s songs (no subtitles)

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)

Invisible Man Appears (透明人間現る, Nobuo Adachi, 1949)

Invisible man appearsReleased in 1949, The Invisible Man Appears (透明人間現る, Toumei Ningen Arawaru) is the oldest extant Japanese science fiction film. Loosely based on the classic HG Wells story The Invisible Man but taking its cues from the various Hollywood adaptations most prominently the Claude Rains version from 1933, The Invisible Man Appears also adds a hearty dose of moral guidance when it comes to scientific research.

Once again the action centres around an esteemed chemist, Professor Nakazato, who has been working on a serum to render living things invisible. So far he has a sample which works on animals but is reluctant to move on to human testing as A) he hasn’t found a way to reverse the procedure, and B) there are some unpleasant side effects in which the subject becomes increasingly violent and irrational. The professor currently has two top students who are helping him towards his goal and, inconveniently, both have taken a shine to his daughter, Machiko. Half joking, the professor remarks that whoever can solve the problem first will win his daughter’s hand.

A business associate of the professor, Kawabe, is also interested in Machiko and also in the rights to the professor’s important new discovery. The professor, however, is a responsible man and refuses to sell it in case it falls into the wrong hands. Shortly after the professor is kidnapped by a gang of armed thugs who plan to use the serum to steal a set of diamonds known as The Tears of Amour.

There’s plenty of intrigue with various twists and turns to the original story which keep the viewer on their toes as they try to figure out who exactly is the invisible man and what he’s really after. Actually, the solution is sort of obvious and heavily signposted but that doesn’t make it any less fun. Kawabe is a moustache twirling villain from the get go and it’s obvious he has various things going on in the background but there’s more to the story than a greedy business man trying to manipulate everyone around him for his own gains. There’s also an interesting subplot in which the younger sister of one of the scientists is a top actress at the Takarazuka Review and turns out to have a connection to the Tears of Amour.

All of the classic B-movie hallmarks are here from the slightly ridiculous sci-fi jargon to the classic women in peril shenanigans as the serum starts to take hold and the Invisible Man becomes increasingly paranoid. There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so – so it would be for science as far as the film is concerned. According to the message at the film’s beginning and end, there is no scientific discovery which is innately “evil” but each is apt to be misused. It’s not difficult to see why this would be a popular, even essential, message in the Japan of 1949 and indeed it recurs in many films of this type including, of course, the original Godzilla. The professor takes responsibility for having invented something which, although not created with evil intent, has wrought such destruction on society but finds himself with nothing left to do other than apologise.

Director Nobuo Adachi uses a lot of classic silent cinema techniques such as dissolves and montages with a fair amount of handheld camera and some location shooting (though the majority of the film is studio bound). The special effects were supervised by Eiji Tsuburaya who would later become the founding father of tokusatsu and co-creator of the Godzilla franchise and are top notch for the time period. An enjoyably silly B-movie, The Invisible Man appears is a well crafted addition to the Invisible Man corpus and a fantastic example of Daiei’s post-war genre output.


This is an unsubtitled trailer but I wish all trailers were this much fun!