Dan continues his look at 70 years of Asian cinema with the period drama A Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo, directed by the great Mikio Naruse
Among the founding fathers of Japanese cinema – not perhaps those who pioneered the form, but who created lasting work that influenced generations of filmmakers to come, Mikio Naruse is today perhaps the least well known. His films did not have the international appeal of those of Ozu, Mizoguchi or Kurosawa, and you rarely see retrospectives of his work in the way you might for those other, higher profile directors. But Naruse played an important part in the development of Japanese drama, both in the pre and post-war era, and films such as Floating Clouds and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs can be counted amongst the best Japanese cinema of the 20th century.
At first glance, A Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo doesn’t seem that representative of the type of film that defined Naruse as a director. The themes that preoccupied him across his best known pictures – the position of women in Japanese society, the financial hardship suffered by the working classes – are pushed to the background in favour of more formulaic entertainment, and while the director usually favoured a contemporary setting, this is a period tale. It focuses on a young, orphaned archer called Kazuma who has been brought up in an inn by kindly landlady Okinu and is soon to enter an archery contest in an attempt to break a record set by the enigmatic Hashino Kanzaemon. But when Kazuma’s life is threatened by men serving Kanzaemon who do not wish to see the record broken, the young bowman finds an ally in mysterious veteran samurai Karatsu Kanbei.
A Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo was filmed in Kyoto in early 1945, only a few months before Japan’s surrender to the allies and the end of World War 2. As well as suffering from the economic and governmental restrictions felt by all filmmakers during this time, Naruse’s personal life had experienced major turmoil, the breakdown of his marriage to former leading lady Sachiko Chiba leading to a period of deep depression. It is little wonder then that this film carried little of the personal, compassionate flavour of his best known pictures. But given that this was a time that even the most revered filmmakers were being forced to churn out propaganda pieces, A Tale of Archery is refreshingly free of such traits – what remains might lack weight, but it’s still a pacy, entertaining drama.
Although there are a couple of brief but exciting combat sequences – the first between Kazuma and Kanzaemon’s men, the second involving Kanbei – the conflict here is more mental than physical. Kazuma’s greatest opponent is not Kanzaemon, but his own psychological state. While there’s little doubt that he possesses the technical ability to set a new archery record, his impetuous nature and lack of self belief suggests that he may well crack under the pressure. The arrival of Kanbei provides the guiding father figure he desperately needs, but also presents an extra layer of intrigue as to the motivations of the older samurai. Kazuo Hasegawa is quietly dignified in his role as Kanbei, while Kinuyo Tanaka provides the film with its standout performance as the kind, dedicated Okinu. Which is a good job really, because Kazuma himself is actually quite an irritating character – by turns terrified, whiny and ungrateful; it is for Okinu’s sake that you will his victory on.
Naruse shoots with the studied economy that marked all his work – unfussy direction, limited sets and naturalistic lighting. At only 75 minutes there is not one wasted second, and I suspect that very little was left on the cutting room floor. We see just enough of the climactic archery contest to provide a satisfying conclusion, but Naruse’s interest is not in the event itself but the behaviour and motivations of the characters during the build-up. For Naruse this was just another movie, one of two released in 1945, with another four to follow in the two years after the war. But even a minor work from a master filmmaker can provide much pleasure and in an era of very little great Japanese cinema, it stands out from the pack.
ASIA7070 SO FAR…