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Tomu Uchida: Part 9

May 2nd, 2008 (09:20 pm)

Movie #9: Policeman (Keisatsukan) with A History of Crab Temple (Kanimanji engi). Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose...

© 2008
D. Gordon

A two-fer, for silent Uchida. It didn't occur to me until after the showing that this also implied pre-war Uchida and any baggage he may have had at that time - but we'll get to that soon enough.

First: A History of Crab Temple, a 1924 animated short, unfortunately with Japanese intertitles and no benshi. But the basic story is easy enough: old man and daughter live kindly, pious lives near local temple dedicated to crabs; evil snake spirit sees daughter and covets her; crabs come, destroy snake spirit, and save daughter. (One thing about silent folk tales - it's pretty easy to pick up on the happenings without words.) The print is a little the worse for wear; but for an 84-year old film, especially from a country with a much higher than average rate of silent film loss, we're definitely not going to complain. The film is definitely interesting because it uses silhouette animation using shadow puppets. This technique may be better known in the West through Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926); although Reiniger's procedure is slightly different, she'd been animating films and parts of films since about 1918. It's nice to see examples of her influences elsewhere.

And than there's Policeman, Uchida's only complete surviving silent feature. Itami, an officer, runs into his best friend from school, and soon suspects him of a robbery in which the officer's mentor is shot and later dies. Itami feels a deep obligation to find the robber and obsessively pursues the case - which comes to mean pursuing his friend.

There are a couple of problems with the production. First, the story pushes the believability boundaries. In A Fugitive From the Past the police are portrayed as just short of supermen; it may take them awhile, and they may sometimes skirt the law, but they never make mistakes and they always get their man. In this earlier movie it's the same, except more so. Itami gets incredibly lucky breaks, sometimes all on the same day: he runs into a young neighbor who'd just happened to move into the building across from the one he's watching, and then, from the boy's apartment, he just happens to spy the set of golf clubs his friend had been carrying when they'd run into each other. That's a lot of "just happens." He also spends three days watching the building and the comings and goings - not eating, not sleeping, apparently not using the facilities and definitely not telling anyone what he was doing, including his superiors at the police force. Good job, Brownie. Try not to get caught while you're nodding off, standing in the alley for the residents to see. And all of this dodgy work actually pays off.

Second issue is with the movie in the context of Uchida's creative development. Again, there are the wonderful visuals we've come to expect: the shadow of a motorcycle speeding along, angled overhead shots of crowds as the police search for the escaped suspect, even the two friends skipping rocks across a pond as they catch up on their lives. But the imagery isn't integrated very well with the basic story, and more importantly the technology isn't always equal to Uchida's vision. So the moving camera doesn't always remain steady on the image, and the lights of the police cars facing the criminal aren't all that blinding. The beauty of his visuals doesn't always comes across the way it should.

Another problem lies with the movie in the context of the society that produced it: it's a message movie. As Itami realizes he has to put aside his feelings for his friend and do his job, there are a sequence of intertitles interspersed with images of the police on their way to apprehend the criminals. These intertitles extol the virtues of the force and the dedication of its men, even going as far as describing the job as one sanctioned by heaven. This is 1933 Japan, near the height of Japanese imperialism, rife with nationalism. (I've seen this in other popular films from the period.) The film really serves as a propaganda piece, suggesting that the government exists to preserve society and the nation by divine mandate. It's hard to tell what Uchida felt about all this; he spent time working on propaganda productions in Manchuria during the war, but he also made keiko eiga (leftist tendency) films in the 20s and the veiled socialism of Earth (Tsuchi) in 1939. It may have been the price of working in film, or working at all (although the Nazi production Münchausen manages to both commemorate a German cinema anniversary and avoid being a mouthpiece for National Socialism). There are many things Uchida might've done to produce a riveting policier without overtly pedaling the government line. Unfortunately, in this case Uchida drank the Kool-Aid, adding yet another blemish to an already flawed film.

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

Donald Sosin provided just the right musical touch for both films (as always). His original compositions seem to effortlessly match the moods playing across the screen - especially during chase and suspense scenes. I just wish he'd been given something a little more worthy of his talents.