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Tomu Uchida: Part 6

April 22nd, 2008 (06:42 pm)

Movie #6: Twilight Saloon (Tasogare sakaba). Where everybody knows your name...

© 2008 D. Gordon

Twilight Saloon is look at a raucous but friendly neighborhood bar over one night, from before opening to after closing. Anyone can come in, get a drink and some food and be entertained, and everyone does - so much so that the place is a cross-section of Tokyo society, from businessmen to laborers. It could be a cross-section of postwar Japan itself...

But the situation isn't as simple as "just plain folks." The main singing talent is a baritone doing lyric operas (he does a mean Toreador Song). His accompanist, who is also his teacher, has a murky past as a well-known musician. The stripper has had a good grounding in the fundamentals of ballet. Two ex-soldiers among the crowd recognize each other; deep in their cups and hearing music outside, start in on an old military song until they hear the words of the Internationale float in - which they don't recognize. And overseeing all this is an old man that the staff and regulars refer to as The Professor (Sensei), who was once an important artist but now makes his living playing pachinko.

Twilight Saloon was among the first films that Uchida made after returning to Japan in 1953. As such, it's threaded with fears and uncertainties similar to other Uchida films covering the period. The older denizens of this microworld, the war hanging over their pasts, are not the people they'd might have been. The younger are looking for their futures, as young people do; the future is there, but they have more obstacles to sort through than an average generation would. But unlike the other two films shown to date (A Hole of My Own Making and A Fugitive From the Past), this is a lighthearted look at the times. The Twilight Saloon is a place where people like to go. There's even an established source of comic relief in The Leech, a hanger-on who drifts through the bar trying to wrangle free drinks and finishing scraps from plates yet to be cleared. When you stop and think about it, his future looks pretty bleak; but he's still a pleasant fellow, welcome in the bar, and part of the comfort of the place. Even the two spurts of violence over the course of the evening don't disrupt the ambiance; as the Professor says, "that doesn't happen that often." Everybody's always in good spirits.

The Professor is the lynchpin of the place, and a bit of an alter ego for Uchida. He also knows more about what's going on in this little world than anyone else, and keeps the good times going by pulling strings behind the scenes (somewhat like Chikamatsu's deus-ex-machina in Love in Osaka). He makes it possible for Yuki the barmaid to both help her mother and run away with her boyfriend. He's the one who sets up the opportunity for Ken the baritone to realize his dreams, and helps Eto the pianist understand the conflict of his past. He enables the director to get in there and "make everything okay" - which makes this one of the most optimistic outings by Uchida so far.

You have to wonder if the Professor's link to Uchida isn't deeper than that. Uchida worked on propaganda films in Manchuria during the war. When the Professor confesses to an old friend his history and how he got to where he is - and how he doesn't want to go back - it sounds very much like Uchida atoning in a fashion for his own history. But confessional or not, Twilight Saloon is a little gem of a movie. It may not be considered Uchida's masterpiece, but there's just something very satisfying about it.