When highly respected Japanese film magazine, Kinema Junpo, published its list of the Best Japanese Films of the 20th Century back in 1999, it featured many undisputed classics from the likes of Kurosawa Akira, Mizoguchi Kenji, Naruse Mikio and Ozu Yasujiro. However, many Western observers would have been flummoxed by the film that sat proudly in the No.5 spot: Bakumatsu Taiyo-den by Kawashima Yuzo. This film, released through Nikkatsu Studios in 1957, has gone largely unseen by audiences in the West. In fact, this new DVD and Blu-ray release from Masters of Cinema marks the first time that any of Kawashima's films have been released on disc in this part of the world. The reasons for this are unclear, but when Nikkatsu produced a newly restored version of the film as the inaugural screening at the studio's 100th Anniversary celebrations two years ago, it was easy to see why the film was held in such high regard back home.
Co-written by the director and his young protégé, one Imamura Shohei, the film is at first glance a knockabout comedy set almost entirely within the confines of a bawdy brothel called Sagami Inn. However, closer inspection of the script reveals a biting satire focusing on the different social classes not of the Bakumatsu Era in which the film is nominally set, but of present day Japan.
The film's title translates as "A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era". During the mid-fifties, Japan was faced with a problem it had never before had to deal with - teenagers. As was the case in the USA and much of the rest of the world, a new generation of idle youngsters had emerged out of the debris of World War II, reluctant to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents and generally dissatisfied with their station in life.
While in the US this teen rebellion was embodied by the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando, in Japan it was personified by the Sun-Tribe generation (Taiyo Zoku). Hugely influenced by American culture, these youngsters loved their rock n roll, motorbikes and lounging around in the sunshine, much to the chagrin of their traditional elders. Nikkatsu Studios was central to a slew of Sun Tribe films, which began with Furukawa Takumi's Season of the Sun and Nakahira Ko's Crazed Fruit (both 1956).
Bakumatsu Taiyo-den opens in present day Tokyo, explaining that the Shinagawa Rest Stop area, where the film's action takes place, is largely empty now - a far cry from the buzzing atmosphere 100 years previously. This is not a film about the imminent change in prostitution laws, the film's voiceover is keen to point out, nor does it want to moralize about its characters' professions. But plenty of parallels will be drawn between that period, when Japan was slowly beginning to open its doors to the outside world following 200 years of self-imposed seclusion, and the rebellious sun tribe era of the 1950s.
The plot focuses on grifter, Saheiji (popular comedian Frankie Sakai), a patron at the Sagami Inn, who runs up a huge bill only to discover he has no money, nor anyone to bail him out. Instead, Saheiji is forced to move into the brothel and work off his debt doing odd jobs, but before long he has turned the situation to his advantage, playing the different factions of this microcosm off against each other. Here Imamura's influence as co-screenwriter becomes increasingly evident, making various comments about opposing factions of society, as portrayed by the various guests and employees of the establishment.
Hidari Sachiko and Minamida Yoko are great as Osome and Koharu, the most sought-after courtesans in the inn. Not only are they sworn rivals, forever trying to win over each other's clients for themselves, but they are both born manipulators and con artists, pledging themselves to a variety of businessmen and Romeos to ensure themselves the best possible future when it comes time to settle down. Needless to say, once they both recognise Saheiji's abilities and growing power, they are soon fighting tooth and nail to have him for themselves.
Most notable of all the supporting characters, however, is Ishihara Yujiro. Star of both Season of the Sun and Crazed Fruit, Ishihara became the poster boy for the sun tribe movement, and his casting here is no coincidence. As revolutionary Takasugi, Ishihara is hiding out at the inn while he plots to bomb a nearby British stronghold. Not only is this anti-establishment stance sympathetic to the youth of the day, but his cocky swagger is wholly anachronistic for the period setting, with Ishihara essentially giving the exact same performance as in his earlier films - a stylistic choice that would have played incredibly well with younger audiences.
Above all else, however, Bakumatsu Taiyo-den is an incredibly entertaining film in its own right, smart yet bawdy and filled with enjoyable performances. How typical of Kawashima's output remains to be seen, but hopefully the warm reception that this film is already receiving will help launch a renaissance of the director's work. While Masters of Cinema's new release, available on both Blu-ray and DVD, does not come with any extras, it does feature a beautiful 36-page booklet that includes a revealing testimonial of the director from his protégé and regular drinking partner, Imamura Shohei. He writes openly of the director's reclusive personality, ill-health, and their frequent disagreements when working together, but there is a sensitivity to his frankness that comes through in Imamura's writing. The booklet also features a new essay from Japanese Cinema scholar Frederick Veith, as well as some gorgeous artwork.
Bakumatsu Taiyo-den is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.
Henri-Georges Cluzot's The Murderer Lives at 21 and The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka will be released on 20 May.