Bakumatsu Taiyô-den Review
Yûzô Kawashima is relatively unknown here in the west but in Japan his oeuvre is respected enough that just under a handful of his films made it into Kinema Junpô's infamous Top 100 list of the best Japanese films of all time, so you could say it's something of a travesty that his work hasn't found more attention abroad. Maybe it's because his films didn't possess the delicate sensibilities of the high-brow auteurs of the time, or maybe it was because he often satirised and parodied film genres and other elements of Japanese culture that have also passed under the radar of foreign arthouse crowds, who knows, but the good folk at Masters of Cinema are at least trying to rectify this oversight by becoming the first (to my knowledge) distributor in the West to release a Kawashima film on Blu-ray. Their choice is the most lauded of the director's work: Bakumatsu taiyô-den, which made it into the top five of that Kinema Junpô list.
Bakumatsu taiyô-den (literal translation: Sun Legend in the Bakumatsu Era) is a sort of liberally expanded adaptation of the famous rakugo story: Inokori Saheiji (Saheiji Who Stayed Behind). If you're unfamiliar with the term then rakugo is a form of comic monologue usually performed by a lone storyteller on stage sitting down addressing the audience directly, and Inokori Saheiji portrays the antics of a grifter named Saheji who runs up a sizeable bill at a brothel with the intention of working off the debt by doing odd jobs around the Inn. In Kawashima's film (co written by Shohei Imamura) Saheji is played by comic actor Frankie Sakai, and the rakugo story is expanded upon by a number of intermingling plotlines that make up the comings and goings of the Sagami Inn, chief of which are the schemes and rivalries of the two highest-ranking oiran and a gang of Nationalist samurai who are plotting to blow up a nearby district being built to house local foreigners.
The booklet accompanying this release features an essay explaining how Bakumatsu taiyô-den is chiefly a parody of a small sub-genre of Japanese cinema that was somewhat infamous but short-lived back in the 1950s. As such I'm guessing many of the comedic touches will be lost on a typical Western viewer, so perhaps in promoting the film by boasting about its high regard amongst Japanese film critics, Masters of Cinema might be placing a weight of expectation that's difficult for the film to live up to for a Western audience. Don't get me wrong, Bakumatsu taiyô-den is a really fun film, but I think over here it plays more as a feel-good charmer rather than a riotous parody. It is a real charmer though, Kawashima's direction is extremely energetic: the camera never lets up as it frenetically switches between floors and zips across boardwalks as the prostitutes and patrons conduct their merry dance, and he deftly juggles a surprising number of intercrossing plotlines for a sub-2hr film, with the central story of Inokori Saheji being the gel that glues everything together.
Frankie Sakai is spot-on in the main role, a happy-go-lucky grifter and jack of all trades who "milks the system" for all that its worth by paying off his debt through manual labour whilst generating a ridiculous amount of tips for the other services he can provide on the side. Before long he's pretty much running the brothel and it's a quaint kind of joy to watch him manipulate and manoeuvre all the different factions within the inn.
There's isn't more that needs to be said about Bakumatsu taiyô-den; to really analyse the film and cover all its facets and subtleties you'll need someone who is considerably more knowledgeable about Japanese cinema and history than me, but I can say that even if you're a complete newcomer there's enough going on to offer a breezy 110minutes, and hey; If Yûzô Kawashima wasn't on your radar before watching this film, he certainly will be afterwards!
PresentationAs part of Nikkatsu's centennial celebrations in 2012 they conducted a full digital restoration of Bakumatsu taiyô-den, so it's no surprise that the film looks pretty awesome in full 1080p here. The print has been remarkably cleaned up and only exhibits minor nicks and scratches here and there (mostly in the form of vertical scratches). Grain has been fully retained and contained to that light, ultra-fine look that you'd associate with film negatives, but while image detail is solid, Bakumatsu taiyô-den is lacking the sharpness of higher-budget Hollywood productions of the era.
When it comes to contrast and brightness, Masters of Cinema tend to favour the more muted look of Japanese masters and as such tend to keep the contrast pretty low, so those who favour the more contrast-adjusted look of Criterion releases might wish that black levels were deeper (indeed, true black doesn't really occur at any point in the film), but I really like the more mellowed out contrast we have here and found the greyscale to be particularly expressive. The only real black mark you can give the transfer is for banding and a little bit of compression noise being present despite a healthy AVC bitrate that averages out at 35Mbps.
Audio comes in the form of a sole Japanese LPCM 2.0 mono track that is extremely clean and clear with a balanced mix that ensures that dialogue is audible at all times. Treble is well defined but bass is probably the one areas where the film shows its age as it's definitely lacking here and the audio generally sounds a little bit sharp as a result. Not really much of a problem for a film this old though. Optional English subtitles are included and I can't recall any spelling or grammatical errors.