The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka Review

A contemporary and close friend of Yasujiro Ozu, who would go on to claim him as one of the greatest Japanese directors of all time, Sadao Yamanaka made 22 films over of period of six years, before being drafted into war and dying at the age of 28. Of those films, only three are known to survive in their fullest form and Eureka Entertainment, following on from their 2005 release of Humanity and Paper Balloons, packages together this welcome trio as they mark their Western debut.

The fourteenth feature out of a reported twenty-two that Yamanaka directed across an impressive six year period (1932-1937), The Million Ryo Pot [Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo] takes its cue from one of Japanese literature’s most famous fabled figures: Tange Sazen - a one-eyed, one-armed swordsman - created by Fubo Hayashi in 1927 and subsequently popularized through the performance of Denjiro Okochi in a film series for Nikkatsu in 1928. Okochi would return to the role for Yamanaka’s The Million Ryo Pot in 1935, and while the character’s attributes were largely the same, this Tange Sazen served as more of a comedic foil; a parody of his former self and less of a central figure to the director’s tale of struggling working classes and upper class greed.

The story goes that once upon a time the highest lord of the land, in order to cover any unforeseen military expenses, kept one million ryo in gold within his private reserve. He buried it underground and drew a map to his treasure on a pot decorated with monkeys. Upon hearing this tale, the head of the Yagyu province wants the pot back, regretfully having given it to his younger brother, Lord Genzaburo, just one month prior. He thus sends his servant Dainoshin Ko to Edo in order to trick Genzaburo into giving it back, not realizing of course just how stubborn his younger brother is. However, things aren’t all that simple, when Genzaburo’s young wife Hagino sells the pot to local scrap dealers, also thinking it to be worthless.

The pot ends up in the hands of a young boy named Yasu, whose father Shichibei - a struggling scrap dealer - spends his evening drinking in a local shop to forget about his hardships. The shop belongs to a ronin by the name of Tange Sazen; a grizzled and seemingly misanthropic battle veteran, who one evening escorts Shichibei home after a fierce dispute with vagrants, but fails to prevent a fatal attack on his life. Now faced with the task of informing Yasu of his father’s death, Sazen must set aside some of his differences as he takes the boy under his wing, in turn being led on an adventure unlike any he’s faced before.

The Million Ryo Pot just about serves as the perfect introduction to Yamanaka, illustrating the director’s deft skills in constructing a tightly woven narrative which may appear daunting at first glance. There’s nothing particularly fanciful about his style here (attention to detail and sets aside), just as the hunt for the treasure itself is largely irrelevant; it relies on simple framing devices, both aesthetically and thematically in its commentating on aspects of greed and familial bonding, retaining social and political themes that would continue to be explored throughout his short career. It’s Shintaro Mimura’s - who collaborated with Yamanaka on several projects - script which remains something of an unsung champion, hitting all the right beats, while the director effortlessly matches its comedic rhythm. The interweaving adventures which find themselves knee-deep in destitution, are of such joyful satire; a relentlessly funny series of escapades spurred on by a host of fantastic performances, from Kunitaro Sawamura’s tautological ramblings as Genzaburo, to Denjiro Okochi absolutely living it up as the vicious but kind-hearted Sazen. Above all these are well-defined characters, with clear-cut goals and aspirations, along with nicely developed relationships. It all may seem quite archetypical today, but there seems little reason to doubt that Yamanaka proved to be a driving force of inspiration for what come from later successful directors. Simply masterful storytelling.

By contrast, 1936’s Kochiyama Soshun (nonsensically titled 'Priest of Darkness' overseas) sees Yamanaka and screenwriter Shintaro Mimura serve up something of an even more pessimistic overview of the interweaving lives of a community under fierce hardship. A fairly dark precursor to Humanity and Paper Balloons, Kochiyama Soshun - loosely adapted from a Kabuki play - similarly pitches a tale about the search for a missing item and how one person’s regretful decision can spur on a disastrous chain of events.

The story takes place in the Meiji period, Edo, where ronin Kaneko does his rounds in collecting the daily takings from local businesses. That is except from Onami, a young women working in a sake shop, whom Kaneko shows considerable admiration toward. When an old friend named Kitamura, who serves as a chief retainer, does a spot of catching up with Kaneko, his distraction leads him to forget his prized dagger at Onami’s place. It’s around the same time that Onami’s younger brother, Hirotaro - currently in the throws of adolescence - spies the piece. This quickly sets into motion a series of close encounters, where codes of honor are met with trepidation and old friendships are rekindled in unexpected ways...

Coming off the back of Tange Sazen, Kochiyama Soshun feels like a bit of a kick to the ribs; an almost unrelentingly bleak tale of tragedy, with just the smallest hint of humour, it may as well play as the yin to Sazen’s yang, featuring a story of little hope and redemption. By the same token, however, its ideas don’t stretch much beyond the aforementioned comedy of errors, with a pacing which feels laboured by comparison, despite a shorter run time. Still, Yamanaka’s ambitious display of converging plot lines and flawed figures continues on in daring tradition; its central examination of a darker, poverty filled underworld of varying seediness being handsomely presented and methodically constructed, certainly leaving room for thought long after the final fade.

“Lastly I say to my seniors and friends:
Please make good movies”.

18 April 1938

Those were Yamanaka’s final written words whilst drafted into the Japanese army, sent to the front lines the very day that his final film Humanity and Paper Balloons received its Japanese premiere.

Also adapted from a kabuki play [Shinza the Barber], the story takes place during the Tokugawa years (Edo period). Ronin Matajuro Unno struggles to find work, while his wife Otaki works from home making paper balloons. Meanwhile the local barber, Shinza forms a plan to kidnap the daughter of a rich merchant and seeks to hide her away at Matajuro’s home. All the while Shinza is struggling to make ends meets, due to a gambling addition which will drive him to desperation.

Japan’s economical and social pressures resonate throughout Humanity and Paper Balloons’s run time; a story by its very nature which perhaps should be just as depressingly reflective as it sounds. Contrary to such assumptions, however, its evidently gloomy facade harbours a healthy amount of humour, seemingly designed to bypass its stark realization of Japanese working classes and, in this instance, the ridiculously desperate lengths that some will go to in order to earn a living. Our director constantly champions those who appear lesser abled in this unravelling tale of greed, which brings about several satisfying moments, even if it’s not all meant to last very long.

Toward the second half of the picture the tone shifts to a more serious one, with a stronger look at displays of honour and tradition, and much like Yamanaka’s previous films it does so in a fitting matter, eschewing audience expectations through the depiction of its samurai classes. The director, under no illusions, illustrates a simple point in showing that people are all the same, no matter their standing in life. And it’s perhaps that simple philosophy that has helped enable him to triumph as one of Japanese cinema’s most important film makers; a talent taken away far too early and whose works became cruelly ravaged by the very threat he would fight against.

The Discs

Eureka presents The Complete Existing Films of Sadao Yamanaka on two dual-sided DVDs, the first holding Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo and Kochiyama Soshun and the second Humanity and Paper Balloons and the bulk of the bonus material.

Presentation-wise, the quality between these three features varies: Tange Sazen is solid enough in terms of detail, blacks and contrast levels, suffering primarily from a spot of wear and tear. Jumping, line scratches and crackling audio are amongst the chief factors but aren’t enough to spoil its enjoyment. Kochiyama Soshun is a little rougher, with a soundtrack that’s immediately in worse state, with low dialogue and other extraneous sounds, while contrast is overly harsh, resulting in blown out whites. Humanity and Paper Balloons, taken from a restored print, is about the best of the bunch. While brightness levels vary, contrast, blacks and shadow detail are reasonably strong , while the original mono track is adequate. There are optional English subtitles for each film, which are well timed, translated and free from errors.

Extras consist of an Extended Scene for Tange Sazen, which is taken from a surviving but poor quality trailer. Two Fragments, presented by Tony Rayns offers up two brief but remarkable clips, which survive due to the 9.5mm home format. The first is taken from Yamanaka’s debut feature Iso no Genta: Dakine no nagawakizashi and consists of a dynamically shot swordplay sequence, while the second is from Kaito Shirozukin: Zempen, a talkie made for Nikkatsu.

Tony Rayns also provides an enlightening introduction to Yamanaka. Speaking to camera for approximately 23 minutes he talks of Yamanaka’s upbringing, his style of film making and how he subverted his left-wing beliefs into his films, under strict military governing. He also talks of the director’s stature within the film industry and his eventual drafting into the war, before discussing the three films in a little more detail.

Also accompanying the release is a booklet containing Yamanaka's will, along with excerpts from his diaries. There are also contributions from Tony Rayns, Shinji Aoyama and Kimitoshi Sato, although I didn't receive this for the purpose of review.

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