June 2017, arsenal cinema

Three films by Sadao Yamanaka


The Japanese director Sadao Yamanaka made 26 films between 1932 and 1937 when he was drafted. He died on the Manchurian front in 1938, at the age of 29. Today, only three of his films remain but they testify to an exceptional talent and at the same time to an immeasurable and double loss - of films that have disappeared and those that he was no longer able to make. Yamanaka, who was working at a time of innovation in Japanese cinema, can be credited with modernizing the Jidaigeki genre - period dramas set in the Edo period - and freeing it of cliches. He found his material in Japan's folk culture, transforming proud samurais and heroes into vulnerable, multi-faceted characters. He neither glorified nor romanticized the past, but depicted it realistically and from a critical standpoint. He saw his protagonists' conflicts and problems as being contemporary and pilloried the poverty and injustice of feudalism. The style of his action-packed films, which featured acting ensembles, is reminiscent of the poetic realism of French cinema of the 1930s and 40s. Created with deep focus, elegance and ease, the imagery is pervaded by a bleak and melancholy view of the world and humanity.

TANGE SAZEN YOWA: HYAKUMAN RYO NO TSUBO (Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot, Japan 1935, 11.6., Introduction: Ulrich Gregor & 18.6.) was the third film in a series about the popular fictional character, the one-eyed, one-armed samurai Tange Sazen. In his adaptation (the first two parts were made by his mentor Daisuke Ito), Yamanaka transformed the superhero into a sentimental cynic, proving his potential for comedy. The pivotal pointtypo3/#_msocom_1  of the convoluted plot is a pot that is thought to be worthless. When Genzaburo receives it as a wedding gift from his brother, he takes offense. On a whim, he decides to sell it to a junk dealer. Then he finds out that it is actually worth a million ryo. A wild chase begins for a pot that is always in sight but not recognized as such.

KOCHIYAMA SOSHUN (Priest of Darkness, Sadao Yamanaka, Japan 1936, 12. & 26.6.) Loosely based on a kabuki play by Mukuami Kawatake, the PRIEST OF DARKNESS gathers an ensemble of ronins (samurais without masters), traders (including the 15-year-old Setsuko Hara in one of her first roles), gangsters, yakuzas and geishas. A stolen sword triggers a series of events; misunderstandings and unpredictable encounters drive forward the story, which has numerous subplots. Resorting less to comedy than in TANGE SAZEN and taking a more pessimistic stance, Yamanaka holds the threads of the complicated plot effortlessly together.

NINJO KAMIFUSEN (Humanity and Paper Balloons, Japan 1937, 13. & 27.6.) Yamanaka's last film is set in a poor district of the Japanese capital (known as Edo at the time), where daily laborers and small traders lived and worked in cramped quarters in narrow lanes. A former samurai is found dead, having hanged himself. His acquaintances are outraged that he did not kill himself with a sword as would have been befitting. He had to swap his sword for a bowl of rice. The film weaves the hopes, humiliations and fates of an ensemble of characters that circles around the powerful samurai Mori together in a masterful way and presents an unusually bleak view of the world, which is nothing like a glorification of a bygone era. (al)

With the support of the Japanese Culture Institute in Cologne, the Japan Foundation in Tokyo, the Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum of Film and Television and the National Film Center in Tokyo.