Kochiyama soshun (1936)

28 01 2009

Humanity and Paper Balloons is still the late Sadao Yamanaka’s greatest achievement, but this one isn’t far behind. It does take a more comedic approach, along the lines of Yamanaka’s 1935 film, Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo, but also contains that dark downbeat pessimism that made Yamanaka’s last film so famous, relatively speaking, of course. Like the other two remaining films from Yamanaka’s oeuvre, this film manages to incorporate so many narrative tones that it seems to be the ultimate genre experience. This may sound like an insult to some, but it is anything but. Yamanaka’s work sit proudly alongside John Ford’s. Both directors were versatile, yet consistent, and both were undoubtedly the best filmmakers of their time.

It’s difficult for me to write about any Yamanaka film without getting a little bit mushy. As most people know, only three of twenty three films survive today. A tragic scenario, but not nearly as tragic as Yamanaka’s far too early death in 1938. I hate to look at the glass half empty, but I do get this sad feeling watching all of his films that is brought on by the context of the film’s maker, rather than the film itself. That’s not to say this isn’t an emotive film, it’s just hard not to think about Yamanaka’s demise.

Moving on from that deeply downbeat note, this film showcases just how much of a master Yamanaka was. Many people like to point out how different each of his remaining three films are, but I personally find that they all have much in common. It could be argued that Yamanaka was one of the first cinematic personalities to show some interest in deconstructing genre conventions, but that implies a slightly academic tint to his work. To my knowledge, no film in the 1930s did so. Rather than pointing out the shortcomings of genre films, Yamanaka explores their potential. This is a little bit like what Jacques Rivette does, but Yamanaka’s work is much different.

If I had to sell Yamanaka by using one a comparison to a single director, I would still compare him to John Ford. Both (seemingly, in Yamanaka’s case) at a productive rate, churning out studio-friendly features filled with beautiful poetic touches. In 1936, Ford’s first really visually impressive talking film, Prisoner of Shark Island, was released. Although it wasn’t Ford’s most accomplished film of the 30s, it was the first of his talking pictures that signaled in a very noticeable visual style. Yamanaka seemed to progress at a similar rate. This film is one of his most beautiful, not to mention one of the best looking movies from the 1930s in general. Take, for example, the final fight sequence. It looks so unchoreographed and real, but every frame contains a Murnau-level of cinematic beauty. Are people convinced yet? They should be. This film is essential not only for those interested in the history of Japanese film, but also for those interested in the general progression of cinema.