Masters Of Cinema #122 - The Complete (Existing) Films Of Sadao Yamanaka - DVD Review

Of Sadao Yamanaka's twenty-six films, just three remain, collected here in Masters Of Cinema's set, alongside a handful of fragments from his remaining back catalogue. In a morbid way, the destruction of Yamanaka's work fits in with his tragic life, which ended in 1938 when he died of dysentary whilst serving in the army. He was twenty-eight.

The three films that survive, from a oeuvre created in a span of just six years, are Tange Sazen: The Million Ryô Pot, Kôchiyama Sôshun (Priest Of Darkness) and Humanity And Paper Balloons, his most covered work and also the last he completed before passing away.

Whilst the films that bookend the collection are terrific in their own ways it is Kôchiyama Sôshun, which stands out on several levels. The quality of the transfer for starters, doubtless down to the condition of the original film stock, is terrible, with dull, scratchy sound and an often blurred picture. The plot follows the travails of several inter-linked protagonists, who find themselves in varying degrees of trouble when a samurai's knife is stolen and sold.

The management of the protagonists, and the script by Yamanaka and Shintarô Mimura is clever but the characters are occasionally dull and lifeless figurines, moving through a potentially exciting plot. Two actors from Tange Sazen reappear as a thinly disguised comedy duo, and they liven things up substantially when allowed to gently jape on screen. Elsewhere though, this trudges to a fair degree and the plot, though attractively complicated at first, becomes cloudy as we progress to a sword fight boasting some of the worst fight choreography this side of early Star Trek.

Much better, in terms of picture quality and film-making skill, are Humanity And Paper Balloons and, in particular, Tange Sazen. The latter sees a collection of miscreant characters searching for a plain 'monkey pot' rumoured to contain the map to a buried fortune.

Two techniques come to the fore in the storytelling, as Yamanaka creates a layered narrative, with plenty to care for and invest in. As Yamanaka introduces us to a omnipresent narrator, we frequently move into the scene to find that the narrator is actually a character, talking to someone. It lends the fable of the film as a whole an authoritative air, governed by those who take part in the action, rather than those outside it. Similarly, as music flits through the piece, Yamanaka builds in an orchestral backing to singular stage performers, a common enough technique now but something that has real resonance here.

Tange Sazen eventually creates a mantra where those lower down the social ladder act with more honour than those above it, rewarding honesty and those who work hard at love (just look at the titular samurai's relationship with his adopted son), rather than those who 'perform' is as a daily motion.

Humanity And Paper Balloons has a similar social message to push, focusing on the residents of a lowly housing area, all desperate to better themselves in honourable and dishonourable ways. As the inevitable central samurai struggles to stay on the right side of that line, a normal resident manipulates his way around the established social structures, usurping the usurpers, in the form of the local gangsters who are no better than he, or any other resident.

The slow, carefully staged scenes are entirely different to the other two Yamanaka films, calling to mind Ozu's Floating Weeds on occasions. Where that is a brilliantly quiet drama though, this gets a little busy at times, and struggles to maintain the character focus which would have seen the finale resonate further.

Tange Sazen: The Million Ryô Pot

Kôchiyama Sôshun

Humanity And Paper Balloons

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.

The Complete (Existing) Films Of Sadao Yamanaka was released in the UK on Monday 20th May 2013

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