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Tomu Uchida: Part 5

April 19th, 2008 (03:38 pm)

Movie #5: A Bloody Spear At Mount Fuji (Chiyari Fuji) - Uchida does comedy.

© 2008 D. Gordon

Uchida spent the immediate years after World War II in Communist China, assisting productions although not making any films himself; he finally returned to Japan and directing in 1953. Bloody Spear At Mount Fuji is his first release after his return, made with help from the cream of the Japanese film industry: Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Shimizu, and Daisuke Itô. Uchida apparently wanted to re-prove himself and demonstrate that he could still make films (although the participation of the other directors indicates that he may just have been suffering some self-doubt). However, despite any restraints he may have put on his work to make it succeed, he still manages to get in some uniquely Uchida elements.

The movie itself - sort of a road movie, starting with a samurai and his retainers travelling the road to Edo, expanding as they meet others and different stories mix and weave together - is funny, something not really evident in the other films so far. There are sight gags and broad humor aplenty, several running jokes, even an extended fart joke. Kojuro, the samurai, is the definition of kindness when sober, but an evil, evil drunk. His retainers, Gonpachi and Genta, tasked with keeping him out of trouble, are a kind of Laurel and Hardy act. The other travellers add a bit of romance, heartbreak, and bravado to the mix, and there's both the cutest little boy and the cutest little girl who neither collide nor add that level of saccharine which taints most child actors' performances. And all this without mentioning the master thief somewhere on the road, posing a threat...

But Uchida doesn't use comedy for the sake of comedy; comedy can be quite subversive, and Uchida has more than proven himself that. To start with, this is the only film based in feudal Japan that I know of which presents the nobility as buffoons. Pointed indictments of the noble class turn up in several places, most notably in the "Fuji-viewing" scene, when three landed nobles are having a tea ceremony, blocking the road for all other travellers, because for one to step aside to allow another to pass would be a sign of deference - and we can't have that.

It's the capture of the master thief - and Kojuro's being rewarded because he's the sole noble, although he wasn't even present for the capture - and a little bit of sake that strengthens the samurai's feelings about the equality of men (which he's demonstrated in bits and pieces since the very first frames). This seems to be Uchida's point, perhaps reflecting Uchida's time in China as well as postwar Japanese attitudes towards tradition.

The movie closes with a final Shane-esque scene: the little boy wants to follow his hero, but his hero refuses him. Funny though it is, it also points to a rejection of a caste system - and an admonishment to the boy to aim higher. Maybe that was a message to the audience as well: Japan had been changed permanently, and needed to forge a new path rather than follow old traditions.


There's more Uchida - period pieces, contemporary dramas, and even his only complete silents in existence - to come, but the retrospective is taking a pause. Back again in a few days.