Class distinctions could be profoundly
unfair during the Edo era, but sometimes they cut both ways. Cut is indeed the
correct operative word in this socially conscious samurai film. A poor but honorable
samurai and his faithful servants become increasingly aware of the injustices
of the world as the make their way to the capitol in Tomu Uchida’s slightly
misleadingly titled Bloody Spear at Mount
Fuji, which screens as part of MoMA’s revelatory retrospective of the major
Japanese auteur, who remains bizarrely under-screened in the West.
Sakawa Kojūrō is a good man and a good
samurai, but not when he drinks. Therefore, his servants, Genpachi the lancer
and Genta the more conventional manservant are under strict orders to keep him away
from the sake. As they travel to Edo to offer tribute to their lord, they fall
in with an itinerant shamisen player and her young daughter. The orphaned Jirō
also takes a shine to Genpachi. In fact, the first two acts have a vibe weirdly
reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales,
as Kojūrō and his servants re-encounter many of the same fellow travelers (to
use an unfortunate term) at every inn along their route.
In this case, familiarity largely breeds
respect and affection, especially from the samurai, who will bitterly reproach
himself for his inability to aid them in times of tribulation. However, his own
egalitarian conduct with his servants will attract the wrong sort of attention
from his fellow samurai.
Uchida’s return to the Japanese studio system after spending over a decade making
movies in Manchuria, so he had to call in favors with one-time contemporaries Yasujiro
Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu to act as production advisors. In fact, there is an
intimacy and a sensitivity to Bloody
Spear not unlike that of their domestic dramas. Of course, that spear will
eventually get bloody—and when it does, the film gets massively heavy.
Resembling today’s Kôji Yakusho, Chiezō
Kataoka is all kinds of hardnosed middle-aged steeliness as Genpachi. He has
the gravitas and the hack-and-slash chops, but he also develops rather sweetly tender
chemistry with Chizuru Kitagawa as the shamisen player and Motoharu Ueki’s Jirō.
Daisuke Katō quite effectively counterbalances Kataoka as Genta, who initially
seems to be the typical Falstaffian servant but slowly reveals himself to be a
considerably deeper, more complex figure. Plus, Ryunsuke Tsukigata really kicks
viewers’ legs out from under them as the mysterious Tōzaburō, whose secret really
elevates Bloody Spear to the level of
Spear is just a terrific film
that combines the sort of outrage at injustice that marked Reginald Rose’s
early work with an affectionate needling of the common folks’ foibles, all
within the Jidaigeki format. There is a lot of life happening on the road to
Edo—and Uchida takes in quite a bit of it. Very highly recommended for fans of
classic cinema of any variety, Bloody
Spear at Mount Fuji screens again Thursday (11/3) as part of the Tomu Uchida
retrospective now underway at MoMA.
Labels: Japanese Cinema, MoMA, Tomu Uchida