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Tomu Uchida: Part 1

April 12th, 2008 (02:45 pm)

There's a Tomu Uchida retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this month. I'm making a mighty effort to get to as many as possible.

From the program:

BAMcinématek is proud to present the first New York retrospective of another significant Japanese director, the long overlooked Tomu Uchida, whose name translates to "spit out dreams." Uchida's films from the 20s and 30s possess a leftist social commentary, while his post-war work reveals a strong genre stylist with no immediately discernible themes, much like many golden-age Hollywood directors. Uchida effortlessly directed chamber dramas, comedies, and samurai epics, often in color, and with a forward-looking dose of irony. This could be your only chance to view these exceptionally rare films. All films directed by Tomu Uchida and in Japanese with English subtitles. All archival prints!

Film #1: Chikimatsu's Love in Osaka (Naniwa no koi no Monogatari).

© 2008 D. Gordon

One criticism I've heard of the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men is the "lack" of an ending. This is pretty much misplaced: the movie has a definite ending, the main characters' stories are resolved (except for maybe one), and the final moments more require some attention from the viewer to understand them. But toying with the concept of a neat, predictable ending is one the brilliant touches that unfold across the screen.

Likewise, Tomu Uchida's Chikimatsu's Love in Osaka (1959) is faced with the dilemma of what to do about the ending. It's an adaption of Chikamatsu Monzaemon's early 18th century bunraku plays The Courier from Hell (Meido No Hikyaku) and The Couriers of Love Fleeing to Yamato (Koibikyaku Yamato Orai), which in turn are based on an actual incident from 1710. This is an established tale with an established ending: the lovers commit a transgression and have to pay, the rules of society have been broken - no matter how deserving the reason - and that cannot stand. But the movie Chikamatsu feels for them, enough to not want to just leave them to that fate...

This is an intriguing enough situation, more even more intriguing by the way the story is presented. The movie opens with Chikamatsu as a spectator at a performance of his latest bunraku play, which is going well. Puppetry soon becomes reality as the story begins to play out around him. Chubei and his young assistant stops by one of the stalls, where his foster mother and fiancée Otoku are enjoying the performance. His foster mother, to whom he's apprenticed, runs a successful courier service; someday the young man will enter that marriage of convenience and take over the business. Overall, Chubei is a dutiful, grateful son - until the day Hachi, a business acquaintance, coerces him into visiting the Shinmachi pleasure quarters where he meets the prostitute Umegawa. Umegawa is a gentle soul who's working to repay a debt incurred to help her sick mother. And when the two meet, fate takes control - and adds a twist in the form of a local noble who takes a shine to Umegawa.

Chikamatsu is often an honored guest at the brothel, although he seems to primarily observe the drama unfolding around him: the prostitute's gentleness, the love developing between the couple (especially when Umegawa explains a prostitute's life to Chubei), and the encroaching threat from the ever more besotted noble. But Chubei's desperate act to save Ume not only pushes the couple towards their preordained fate, but also pushes Chikamatsu into becoming an active participant. What's happening around him also becomes an author's process of working through his characters, suffering from writer's block, and trying to craft a "happy" ending. The lovers, on the run, stumble through the snow-covered mountains as Chikamatsu worries over his ending. He comforts one of the little servant girls at the brothel, who's crying over Ume's disappearance, much as he might comfort his characters because he's feeling guilt over not resolving matters. He steps in to keep Umegawa from drowning herself in the brothel's well because that would be the expectation (and he does care about his characters). And a large part of the beauty of the production is that once he has his ending, the action first switches to a kabuki-esque, beautifully graceful stylization of the characters' action, then back to the bunraku puppet show as the rapt audience in the packed house watches the final scene attain the balance that Chikamatsu has spent so much effort to achieve.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The print itself could have used a little preservation; the colors are a little unstable. A double shame since Uchida obviously used color to add richness and texture to the story, especially during the kabuki section. That might be the stylistic highlight of the film, as the human actors use movements which then segue into the puppets' movements in that final bunraku scene. All of the actors fully represent their characters: Kinnosuke Nakamura and Ineko Arima have the right youthful innocence for the lovers, Eijirô Tono is a truly slimy noble, Kinuyo Tanaka is a thoughtful Chikamatsu. All in all, an excellent start to the Uchida retrospective.