Director: Yûzô Kawashima
Screenplay: Yûzô Kawashima, Shôhei Imamura, Keiichi Tanaka
Starring: Frankie Sakai, Sachiko Hidari, Yôko Minamida
Producer: Takeshi Yamamoto
Running Time: 110 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
In 1951, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon played at the Venice Film Festival and introduced not only the well-loved director to the Western World, but also Japanese cinema in general, which previously had been little seen outside of its home and neighbouring countries. Funnily enough, Kurosawa wasn’t quite as respected in Japan, in fact Rashomon’s production company Daiei and the Japanese government didn’t feel the film was the right choice to enter in to the festival as it was “not [representative enough] of the Japanese movie industry”. Kurosawa was always thought to have too much of a Western style in his home country, local tastes tended towards directors such as Ozu and Mizoguchi. With the success of Rashomon overseas however, these directors (and others) did begin to receive recognition in the West and Japanese cinema brought forth many critical favourites for audiences around the world.
One film which has still remained relatively unknown however, despite being released during the Japanese cinema boom of the 1950’s and despite being considered one of the greatest films of all time in the country itself, is Bakumatsu Taiyô-den (a.k.a. A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era or Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate). As far as I’m aware (after having a scan online), the film has never seen a release in the UK or US, other than through imports. Well fear not world-cinema aficionados, as Eureka, through their superlative home release range Masters of Cinema, are finally giving us Brits the chance to see this period comedy for ourselves.
Bakumatsu Taiyô-den is set during the last days of the Shogunate, in and around a popular brothel in the red light district. The bustling location sees home (or home away from home) to numerous characters, including Saheiji (Frankie Sakai), a grifter who gets caught out trying to swindle a free night of lavish entertainment. To pay off his debts he works for the brothel and ends up using his ‘talents’ to solve everybody’s problems, from a geisha that too freely hands out marriage agreements to a group of nationalist samurai who are looking to attack the droves of foreigners invading the city.
It’s fairly clear to see why the film never quite took off in the West, as it’s a satire of Japanese values which aren’t very obvious to foreign audiences and it also (according to the packaged essays on the film) pokes fun at a very brief fad in popular national cinema of the time. Due to this, on the surface it can feel like a mildly bawdy throwaway romp. However, the film is still hugely entertaining so it’s surprising that it never really got any sort of a chance over here at all. Without wanting to disrespect Ozu, whose work I adore, this is a heck of a lot easier to watch than his lengthier late-period dramas like Tokyo Story, which, as great as it is, isn’t the most fast paced or exciting of films. Bakumatsu Taiyô-den on the other hand, rockets through its multiple story strands and is packed with comedy which more often than not still holds up to modern Western tastes. Yes, some of the targets of the jokes were lost on me but, being a fan of Japanese cinema since my teenage years, the tearing apart of the traditional values of ‘honour’ and ‘respect’ were appreciated and there was a dark edge to much of it which I enjoyed too. An example of this would be the scenes where an ageing geisha tries to get an ugly man to share a ‘love suicide’ with her. This gets quite silly, but is still very funny and surrounds a theme that would rarely grace Hollywood screens at the time.
Also impressive is how well the whole film stays together, despite it’s huge volume of characters and storylines. Aided by a script co-written by the great Shôhei Imamura, the film is dense without feeling overly complicated. Added to this, director Yûzô Kawashima utilises a number of elaborate camera moves and clever match-cuts which help the scenes flow together beautifully. There is quite a lot of camera movement in general, quite a change from Ozu’s very static style.
That said, Bakumatsu Taiyô-den didn’t blow me away in the same way as some Japanese classics of the period have. It kind of reminded me of La Règle du Jeu in that on the surface it feels like a simple farce, but is classily produced and contains hidden depths that only unveil themselves if you understand the background behind the film and its setting. And I felt the same way about that French classic; I enjoyed it and could appreciate its craft, but couldn’t fully tap into what made it great to the eyes of others.
Bakumatsu Taiyô-den is still very much worthy of your attention though, even if its never going to be as obviously brilliant to Westerners as many native viewers would deem it. It’s a rich, deftly handled and riotous side-swipe at traditional Japanese values and a piece of world-cinema history which Eureka must be applauded for finally bringing to the UK.
Bakumatsu Taiyô-den is out now in the UK on Blu-Ray and DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. As with most of their releases, the picture and sound quality is excellent, especially considering how rare the film is in the West (although its love in Japan probably means it’s been kept in good condition over there). The sharp blu-ray image sometimes shows up wig seams and out of focus shots, but you can’t blame Eureka for this.
There are no features on the disc, but you do get a hefty booklet as usual. These are always interesting, but is particularly vital here, giving some insight into the history behind the film and the aspects of entertainment and politics that it satirises. Included is a brutally frank piece by co-writer Shôhei Imamura too, which gives a realistic sounding impression of Kawashima’s background and working practises. It also tells how the Saheiji character seemed to be based on Kawashima himself, mirroring his rebellion against authority and ability to find a niche in his own line of work as well as sharing in suffering at the hand of a chronic illness which they try to hide from others.