Wednesday 24 October 2018

Discovering a major Japanese director - Barrie Pattison encounters Tomu Uchida at the Cinémathèque Française


Tomu Uchida
Asian film was one of the areas where English speaking discussion was pretty well non-existent pre WW2. However, with the Allied victory a number of American film critics found themselves abroad - Arthur Knight in Italy and Donald Richie in Japan. They started writing about the films they found there.

Richie was particularly influential, putting forward the view that the significant work in Japanese film came from their three major directors - Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. This has carried on down the years. When a Mikio Naruse retrospective made it here, the local activist paper announced that they would now consider the country to have produced four auteurs and I’ve heard that one repeated uncritically since. It throws up the picture of Tienosuke Kinugasa, Kozaburo Yoshimura, Hiroshi Inagaki and the rest standing round in the waiting room with their number tickets waiting to join the queue.

With the wisdom of hindsight, we can observe that Japanese film making actually took a giant step in the fifties. You can see this in Kurosawa’s work beginning with the 1949 Nora Inu/Stray Dog and in the Mizoguchi costume trio Ugetsu, Chikamatsu and Sansho Dayu outclassing their makers’ earlier work. 

We will probably never fully understand the reasons for this, though we’d have to factor in the Americans having ripped out the tacky old laboratory equipment and replaced in with the latest models as part of their post-war reconstruction work. A friend of mine asked the manager of one of their labs how they got such sensational results with colour and the man said “We follow the instructions on the label.”

Dancing Girl of Izu
The Japan Cultural Service has more recently attempted to fill in the pre-1945 void. A few titles had some circulation in 16mm. screenings and a good selection of material is now on YouTube with English sub-titles (including Gosho’s excellent1933 The Dancing Girl of Izu  (Koi no hana saku Izu no odoriko) and 1953 Where Chimneys Are Seen  (Entotsu no mieru basho). (Click on the English titles to find them on YouTube.)

In an attempt to deal with this gap in our knowledge, a confederation of cultural organisations - Japanisms 2018, The Japan Foundation, La Maison du Culture de Japon àParis, The National Film Archive of Japan, The Kinoshita Group and a clutch of car maker sponsors are mounting a series of screenings at the Cinémathèque Française Bercy centre - twenty seven titles in the first batch.

This was an appealing prospect not altogether met by the event. The prints did have English sub-titles to which the French added their own captions. The major problem was the miserable quality of many of the copies presented. It took a while to work out that the screen had gone white in Inagaki’s BanaNo Chutaro  Mabuta No Haha because snow is falling in the shot.  Finding that Masahiro Makino’s 1939 Oshidori Utagassen had a full range of tones was welcome surprise.

A few old favourites did make welcome re-appearances Ninjo Kami-fusen/Humanity & Paper Balloons, Kinugasa’s Kurutta Ippeiji/A Page of Madness and Naruse’s Tsuma Yo Bara No Yo Ni/Wife Be Like a Rose but attention centered on unfamiliar titles, Oshidori Utagassen was an example of the costume musicals glimpsed in Denis Quaid’s work as a projectionist in Come See the Paradise. Add Shimizu’s agreeable1933 Arigato San/Mr. Hello, Yoshimura’s 1939 Danryu a prototype hospital drama where they only ever get to treat one injury on screen, Masaku Itami’s 1938 Akanita Kakita/The Spy and Tomu Uchida’s 1933 Keisatsukan/The Policeman which was universally agreed to be the highlight of the event. though the 35 mm print was only passable.

Tomu who?

More than any other Japanese film maker (that we know about) Tomu Uchida has missed his place in that waiting room queue. Even with our limited exposure to his work, he can hold his own with any of the country’s film makers. Only Kurosawa himself deserves more respect. If you don’t believe me have a look at Uchida’s 1955A Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (Chiyari Fuji) on YouTube in a fair sub-titled copy. His silent Earth is there too but untranslated.

I’d encountered his work in the seventies when I reviewed enthusiastically his last film, the 1971 Shinken shôbu  dubbed as Swords of Death and dropped into a Kung Fu double where it outclassed the Hong Kong entries in the cycle.

For whatever reason he didn’t make it into the festival circuit but someone cluey in the Japanese Culture system thought it was time Tomu had a turn and put a season of his work into the Paris Cinémathèque. This had consequences.

A French distributor was sufficiently impressed to put out a French subtitled box set - so far as I know the only examples on video. I scored one in a Vietnamese video shop in Hurstville. The clerk was amazed at being able to offload a box of Japanese films with French captions. I asked if they had any more and she said “Thank you?”

I mentioned the Paris event to the Japan Foundation here and, whether they took that on board or whether the Melbourne Film Festival were due a cultural manifestation, part of it showed up there where it drew enthusiastic full houses - at three in the afternoon mid-week.

Which takes us back to Keisatsukan.
This one is like the Russian Pyshka/Boule–de–Suif or MGM’s Eskimo, a thirties film in the conventions of the silent films which Japan was still making. It proved remarkably fluid for any 1933 film - sound or silent.

Attention is immediately caught when the cops pull over a car at the traffic red light stop set up to catch a fugitive mob leader. They demand passenger Eiji Nakano’s name card. Officer Kosugi (the platoon leader in Takata’s more documentary1938 Gonin no sekko hei/Five Scouts also on show) recognises his old school friend now got up in lip rouge and golf gear with a suspicious looking bag of clubs. This is the era of dressing for golf movies - Robert Montgomery in Love in the Rough, Charley Chase in All Teed Up.

Kosugi has them wave Nakano on. What looks like part of the coverage of the police conversation becomes a striking travelling shot as the camera pulls away and follows the police cycle down the road to the station. They are still using the white cords and short batons seen in the silent samurai films.

Sub-plot offers a kid promised a better kite by Kosugi when his becomes caught in the telegraph wires while the boy’s sister watches.

The cops are called out to a bank robbery where a masked bandit injures the older officer. He is cared for by his family but dies. Fingerprints are taken from a cigarette butt and the dead policeman’s scabbard.

Kosugi spends time with Nakano smoking and relaxing stretched out on the tea house tatami mats, recalling their college football days. “There is an art to achieving identity”

Our hero is reproached by a fellow officer for his absence but he has spent his time in the low life billiard hall checking his suspicions. Given his friend’s cigarette lighter after he admires it Kosugi wraps it in his handkerchief (kind of obvious this) arousing the heavies’ suspicions.

Sustained shot of our hero standing head bowed at the head of an alley ends when he is coshed by a stranger. The kite kid’s sister working there intervenes taking him back to the older officer’s home where he recovers.

Detailed scene of him lifting prints off the lighter and comparing them with those on the scabbard - the earliest such material in film?

Alerted by this information a convoy of police cars and cycles race through the night with their headlights blazing to confront the heavies. This impressive footage alternates with captions about officers needing to suppress their personal loyalties for the needs of duty. The film was commissioned by the authorities to work up the Japanese public’s enthusiasm for their police force but before anyone strikes attitudes about authoritarian governments, consider the contemporary Cagney G-Men was made to fill a similar need.

The golf bag contained rifles and a suitcase is full of pistols. A mass shoot out ensues. Search lights trap the villains and the cops ride cycles in a circle round one cornered man (not all that convincing)

Kosugi shoots his old friend when he tries to escape by leaping off a bridge cuffing the injured hand which he first attempts to dress.

The film is limited by the Manhattan Melodrama plot with officer Isamu Kosugi turning on an old friend, mixed in with Nora Inu  or Blue Lamp  by having him avenge his father figure police mentor

Even so Keisatsukan is unexpected and accomplished. The film making is remarkable, the playing restrained and the unban back ground with trains and gasometers gets attention.

Uchida’s great work was still to come but this one already shows him to be a leading figure in his industry. It’s frustrating not to be able to see the rest of his output.

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