Tomu Uchida (A Fugitive From the Past) constitutes a singular figure in the Japanese cinema landscape. After starting his career in the 1920s and directing several films, including Unending Advance (written by Yasujirô Ozu (Tokyo Story)) and Tsuchi, until the end of the 1930s, Uchida left the country for China after the defeat of Japan during the Second World War. His career restarted, not without trouble, when he came back to his home country and directed Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji in 1955. With this first film he brought a psychological perspective to the Jidaigeki genre (Period Drama usually set during the Edo period of Japanese history), something that was very uncommon at the time.
Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji is a tragicomic road movie of sorts, following samurai Sakawa Kojūrō (Teruo Shimada credited as Eijirô Kataoka), his two servants – Genta (Daisuke Katô) and spear-carrier Genpachi (Chiezô Kataoka) – and the various people they meet on their journey, including a policeman in pursuit of a thief, a young child and a woman who is to be sold into prostitution.
As the title might wrongly suggest, the film is not a great adventure featuring impressive battles between enemy armies. Despite being fully grounded in the historical framework imposed by the genre - usually depicting the life of samurai and featuring sword fights - Uchida’s film clearly focusses on peoples' lives giving a very strong social connotation.
Uchida depicts a small world of good and supportive people and is more interested in the drama of their individual lives. As such, the story itself does not rely on strong intrigue, strictly speaking, but by a multitude of small destinies that intertwine and become very touching thanks to the actors’ performances which are all naturalistic and non-emphatic. And when Uchida steers his interest to the samurai of the story, it is more in relation to his function and the impact it has on him a person, for instance his problems with alcohol and his relationship with his servants. One feels that the samurai is not at ease with class boundaries, but this caste system is so deeply anchored in him, that when he relies on his status to do well, he turns out to be incapable of doing so. Uchida goes even further with the tea ceremony scene during which he clearly ridicules the rich dignitaries.
The action scenes also subvert expectations - even if their power is not diminished - by abolishing the immutable social barriers in a gesture that carries the germ of the end of the shōgunal model and Japan’s transition into the modern era. Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji is not a very well-known film outside of the Japanese Cinema connoisseurs’ world but it deserves to be discovered by anybody interested in socially engaged films and by film lovers in general.
Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji is available now in UK distributed by Arrow Video's Academy label.
The film is presented in an overall good 1080p transfer respecting its 1.37:1 original aspect ratio. There is some damage, which is obviously due to the age of the film, appearing regularly on the image throughout (for instance white lines appearing on the right side of the screen at around 37 or 58 minutes into the film). Although these damages are all very noticeable, they do not disturb the viewing experience. Overall, the level of detail is pretty good even if it feels like the amount of grain has been quite significantly reduced.
On the sound side, the Blu-ray disc features an overall good LPCM 2.0 mono track which also has some issues (cracking noises) but did not disturb my viewing experience either. The disc also contains optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Arrow’s Blu-ray disc contains a nice array of extras which, outside of the new audio commentary, have all been taken from the French DVD created in 2005 by Wilde Side Films.
Brand-new audio commentary by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, recorded exclusively for this release - In this new commentary, Sharp details very interesting aspects of the film, such as its status during Japan’s American occupation and the other important directors involved in the making of the film. He also discusses Uchida’s career and the themes of his film and aptly points out that Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji is the first Uchida film to be released on Blu-ray in the UK, hinting that others may be released in the near future.
Interview with Yasuka Uchida (53 min, Japanese with English subtitles) - In this long and insightful archival interview the son of Uchida explains how he started his career at Toei’s studio, his collaboration (and relationship) with his father. He also talk of his father’s post war military career in China before his return to Tokyo and the film industry. From there, Uchida details how his father restarted his career from scratch and he discusses many aspects of Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji, Hero of the Red Light District, and his subsequent modern films.
Interview with Kazunori Kishida (14 min, Japanese with English subtitles) - In this archival interview, Kishida, a publicist for Toei Studios at the time, discusses the specifics of the Period Drama genre, Kataoka’s acting style, the production companies that led to the creation of Toei Studios, and an interesting parallel between Kataoka and Jean Gabin (La Grande Illusion).
The Vagrant Filmmaker (27 min, French with English subtitles) - In this archival interview, French film critic and programmer Fabrice Arduini discusses Uchida’s place in Japanese cinema and his contemporary recognition. He also provides a very insightful description of Uchida’s life and career which serves as a very good complement to the interview of Uchida’s son.