by Allan Fish
(Japan 1927 95m) not on DVD
Aka. Chuji tabi nikki
A Tale of Edo
d/w Daisuke Ito ph Rakuzo Watarai, Hiromitsu Karasawa
Denjiro Okochi (Chuji Kunisada), Hideo Nakamura (Kantaro), Ranko Sawa (Okume), Naoe Fushimi (Oshina), Mononosuke Ichikawa, Eiji Murakami, Nobuko Akitsuki, Motoharu Isokawa,
There’s something about Daisuke Ito’s film that feels as if it’s not of this world, a part of the cinematic ether, viewed not though a projector onto a screen but through a crystal ball or in a pool guarded by an enchantress. It’s about Chuji Kunisada, a Japanese Jesse James or Robin Hood figure of the early 19th centuryEdo period, an outlaw gambler who had honour, at least according to legend. And legend was what Ito’s film had long entered into, voted the best Japanese film of all time in a 1959 Kinema Jumpo poll.
My first glimpse of it, as if through the flames of an Egyptian soothsayer, was in 1995 when, during the Japanese section of the BFI and Channel 4’s Century of Cinema season, Nagisa Oshima talked of its discovery. Then the notion of Japanese silent film was a new one; I hadn’t yet seen Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness or Crossways and it seemed highly unlikely I’d ever see Chuji. It took 17 years to finally do so, in an old print taken from a VHS tape with counter code still included and no soundtrack, but at least with English subtitles.
Chuji is first seen, to quote the title cards, fleeing Mt Akagi with Kantaro, the son of his late follower Kansuke. Concerned about his orphan state he tries to get Kantaro adopted by a wealthy merchant, but finds himself in trouble after one of his retainers has besmirched his name by pretending to be him and committing acts of larceny. In time he also tries to save a geisha, Oshina, but falls foul of the conventions of the time.
What makes Chuji both so magical but concurrently painful to watch is that it’s so fractured. It’s not dissimilar to watching footage of unfinished potential masterworks like Von Sternberg’s I, Claudius, but the pain is even greater. I, Claudius, or Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible: Part Three, or Carné’s Le Fleur de l’Age, are might-have-beens. Other unfinished films like Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! or Munk’s Passenger were reconstructed so we can still see the masterpiece before our eyes. With Chuji there are portions where you know it’s verbose, over-reliant on title cards to express often reels’ worth of action because the footage no longer exists. A length of over an hour and a half doesn’t seem too bad until you realise that the original length was over four hours, comprising three films of which only portions of parts two and three remain.
So what we really have is something akin to a masterpiece now left fractured, like the mosaic of Alexander the Great defeating Darius III uncovered at Pompeii, Petronius’ Satyricon, Rembrandt’s ‘Claudius Civilis’ or what’s left of the great architecture of the ancient world from Giza to the Palatine. And as with those monumental works, what we have is a masterpiece, fractured, damaged and incomplete as it now may be. One has to put aside the barely adequate sentences linking surviving scenes to each other, for there are not even surviving stills of the lost parts, as at least made a sort of reconstruction of Von Stroheim’s Greed possible.
The acting style may now seem rather theatrical owing much as it did to Japanese theatrical jidaikegi. Star Denjiro Okochi was Ito’s favourite actor and gives everything to the role, not least physically. Indeed what marks the film out as quite radical for its time is just how unfettered the camera is and how much fluency there is to the action. While it’s fair to say that the action sequences may lack the chorographical precision that Inagaki, Kurosawa and Kobayashi would bring to the table, they had a dynamism and restless energy that is striking and was helped immeasurably by the use of natural exterior lighting. What we have, peering through the crystal ball, is a masterpiece in pieces from an early master of the art. If ever you get chance to see it, do, you won’t get another.