A rarity in more ways than one, Bakumatsu Taiyô-den joins Masters Of Cinema's lineup as one of the few overt comedies, certainly of their more recent offerings. Heralded as one of Japan's greatest ever films, and a favourite of Akira Kurosawa, at least part of the reason behind Yûzô Kawashima's film's anonymity in the West may be to do with our apparent inability to settle on a translation for the title (or even whether it is 'Taiyô-den' or 'Taiyôden'). The booklet lists three possibles; The Sun Legend In The Last Days Of The Shogunate, The Sun Legend Of The End Of The Tokugawa Era or, Masters Of Cinema's favoured option, A Sun-Tribe Myth From The Bakumatsu Era. It's a dizzying array of nomenclature, with none of the available options revealing a great deal about the plot.
Sit down for some one-hundred and ten minutes in Bakumatsu's company though and Western audiences will find plenty of familiarity. Centring around an 1862 Shinagawa brothel, Kawashima's film reminds immediately of one-location madcap comedy, with the opening to 1964's A Shot In The Dark proving a particularly vivid comparison.
A familiar tribe of characters - two warring prostitutes, a 'grifter' who cannot pay for his stay, the owners, a young cook and a band of revolutionary samurai - rotate around the upstairs, downstairs and outside of the house, as all manner of tomfoolery ensues and the score lurches somewhere in search of Benny Hill. Bakumatsu is, as the above may sound, a surprisingly broad experience, singularly unafraid to include endless slapstick, or one-off scenes of stand-alone jokes. It is a remarkably fun film, given the Shogun-setting.
There is something serious going on under all of this though, with Kawashima being particularly interested in the dichotomy between new and old, explored here at length although without a great deal of focus. The lack of distinct comment on the theme may well be to do with the fact that, in this case, the film itself forms part of the realisation of the director's interest. Transplanting a popular genre from the 1950s to a setting one-hundred years previously - as detailed in the introduction to the new Masters Of Cinema booklet - Kawashima is already drawing attention to his film's battle between new and old. An introduction leads us in nicely, as the director presents the same neighbourhood where the film is set, displayed for us here in the modern day.
This gives way to gentler inferences of the theme as the film progresses. Having been introduced to two of the brothel's resident prostitutes, Koharu (Yôko Minamida) is quickly characterised as the established force, whilst Osome (Sachiko Hidari) is the representation of new progress, out to destroy her. Lead Frankie Sakai, a popular Japanese comedian, soon comes into direct competition with a band of revolutionary, calamitous, samurai. As this particular Drama progresses, it is clear that The Grifter's (Sakai) sometimes dishonest ingenuity is being rewarded far and beyond the samurai's traditional honour systems. As Grifter himself says, towards the film's conclusion, 'Japan will be a very different country in ten years time'. He just has the foresight to recognise it ahead of most.
Throughout this, Kawashima shows off an established eye and a constant sense of fun. An early scene with Sakai and his friends drunk on sake, is shot on a wobbling slant, a simple enough technique but far away from the still cameras other directors would have been more comfortable with. The war between Koharu and Osome comes to a head in a surprisingly brutal, elongated scrap, which shows off the location to its full extent, both starting downstairs but ending up on an outdoor balcony.
Not all of the representations of the 'new' are shown in a positive or fearless light. There are plenty of hints by Kawashima that 'new' represents uncertainty, foreignness and threat. The constant presence of literal foreigners, somewhere on the outside of the microcosm of the brothel, stirs up anger and, in the samurai's case, action, whilst Osome and Grifter threaten the economic stability of that very microcosm. As contextualised by Frederick Veith, also in the accompanying booklet, these notions are almost certainly a reflection of the films which influenced Bakumatsu, and of the reaction generated by those very films. In newly post-war Japan, the upcoming young generation were seen as a great hope but also as a potential threat to traditional values. Veith's piece, which takes in all of this and more, is an essential accompaniment to what, at times, can seem be a deceptively light-hearted experience.
Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.
Bakumatsu Taiyô-den is released in the UK on Monday 22nd April 2013