(Japan 1935 92m) not on DVD
Aka. Tange Sazen yowa: Hyakuman ryo no tsubo
It‘s not worth three mon
d Sadao Yamanaka w Shintaro Mimura ph Jan Yasumoto m Goro Nishi art Kohei Shima
Denjiro Okochi (Sazen Tange), Kiyozo (Ofuji), Kunitaro Sawamura (Genzaburo Yagyu), Reisaburo Yamamoto (Yokichi), Minoru Takase (Shigeju), Shoji Kiyokawa (Shichibei), Ranko Hanai (Ogino), Harutaro Mune, Katsutaro Bando, Taro Sochun, Zenichiro Kito,
The most famous of several versions of this famous comic tale is the earliest of the three Sadao Yamanaka films to survive – only Kochiyama Soshun and the previously discussed Humanity and Paper Balloons survive of his later work. It’s undoubtedly the lightest of the three extant works, and seems more indicative, retrospectively, of the Japan of the mid thirties, the period when Ozu, Naruse, Uchida and, especially, Shimizu, were at the forefront of Japanese cinema. Sazen Tange may not have the dramatic intensity of Paper Balloons, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, richly entertaining piece for all that
An old legend tells of how a rich feudal lord buried hidden treasure underground and the only instructions on how to find it were in the form of a map on an otherwise worthless clay pot decorated by monkeys. One lord finds out this secret, but realises the pot, which had been in his possession, was passed to his brother to give to his future son-in-law on the occasion of their wedding. The lord takes steps to get a retainer to try and inveigle the pot back into his hands, but smelling a rat the brother beats the truth out of the retainer and finds that it’s potentially worth a million ryo. The problem is his young wife, who like him had thought it an insulting eyesore up until then, has sold it for a few mon to two junk dealers. They in turn give it to a small boy to keep his goldfish in. Then a one-armed and one-eyed samurai, Sazen Tange, is called in to look for it…
Like Miyamoto Musashi, Sazen Tange has been played many times on film, not least by Yamanaka’s star, the kabuki trained Okichi, whose fifth interpretation this was of the character, with three more to follow (including a couple for silent master Daisuke Ito). He doesn’t enter into proceedings until after the first act, but the film is so superbly paced, so intricately constructed that his introduction is as seamless as one could wish for, and the characterisation is absolutely sublime. He’s very much part of an ensemble.
The pot in question is the ultimate MacGuffin, a Japanese Maltese Falcon. The very notion of treasure maps and worthless items actually being worth a fortune – the real Holy Grail, Aladdin’s lamp – was not a new one in western legend, and coupled with the Japanese setting it makes for a wonderful situation for what is, amongst other things, an indictment of greed and a satire of what asses we make of ourselves where huge sums of money are involved. The pot in question always seems just out of reach, that eternal carrot dangled in front of the protagonists, keeping not so much them as the plot going forward, and occasionally round in amusingly ever decreasing circles. And like many Japanese films of the era – think of both Ozu and Shimizu – a child plays a pivotal role in proceedings, offering simple child logic that seems funny to bystanders (such as when he says that men need two eyes because otherwise the second lens in a pair of spectacles would be redundant), but it showcases the ridiculousness of the idiots around him.
The kid is not the only memorable characters, there are a pair of junk sellers who may just be Edo’s equivalent of Steptoe and Son, the lovely Kiyozo as the young girl the married Genzaburo enjoys fishing for goldfish and archery with. Well, I say archery, for in truth he is to archery what the St Trinians girls are to deportment. There’s a superb cowardly portrayal from Sawamura, and at the centre Okichi is splendidly grouchy, with his eye scar and one arm, groaning whenever he loses at the gambling hall. With this and Paper Balloons, it’s enough to showcase Yamanaka as one of the great forgotten masters not only of Japanese, but world cinema.