There is doubtless a fascinating book to be written about the prominence of sex workers and travelling actors in the imaginations of post-World War IIJapanese filmmakers. One explanation for their seeming ubiquity is that post-War Japanese directors wanted to make films about the culture that surrounded them and though sex-workers and travelling actors were technically a part ofJapanese society, their position as marginalised and victimised outcasts meant that their daily struggles cast Japanese society in a different and unflattering light. However, while films such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame,Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds and Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman all looked at the underbelly of Japanese society and despaired, Yuzo Kawashima’sBakumatsu Taiyo-Den looks at the lives of sex workers and criminals and roars with satirical laughter.
Set at the end of the 19th Century Edo period, the film opens with a charismatic rogue (Frankie Sakai) arriving at a brothel and demanding the finest women, the finest foods and the absolute best of the establishment’s cellars. The following morning, an employee of the brothel presents our rogue with a bill that he is absolutely incapable of paying. Familiar with these sorts of goings-on, the brothel keepers demand that the rogue stick around to work off his tab. This is precisely what the rogue had been hoping for as a nasty cough has left him needing a warm place to spend the winter and working off a tab is a lot easier than making enough money to pay for food and rent. Ushered into the back rooms of the brothel, the rogue discovers a hermetically sealed world where two senior geishas (Yoko Minamida and Sachiko Hidari) are desperately trying to escape their owndebts while a disenfranchised nobleman (Yujiro Ishihara) plots to blow up the foreigner’s quarter in an effort to keep Japan independent of foreign interests.
Using the rogue as a foil, Kawashima explores the complex array of social and economic forces that elevate some people but destroy others. This is a world in which people attempt suicide in an effort to escape debtors and fathers sell their daughters into indentured servitude in order to pay off gambling debts and yet, because Kawashima’s rogue stands to one side making snarky comments, the world seems more absurd than it does horrific or depressing. Played by one of the foremost comedians of post-War Japan, the rogue understands the social and economic systems surrounding him and yet he does not feel constrained by either of them. This sense of existential rebellion is particularly evident in the film’s final scene where an old man castigates the rogue for disrespecting the gods only for the rogue to run away laughing and declaring that there’s no such thing as heaven and hell.
Part of what makes Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den such a brilliant film is Kawashima’s flawless control of tone. Given that much of the film boils down to poor people being oppressed while a smug con man laughs at them and makes a load of money, it would have been easy to fall into the trap of either laughing at the poor people or milking their immiseration for dramatic pathos. Kawashima avoids both of these pitfalls by making it clear that, while the rogue may present himself as a charming outsider, he is very much a part of the system he claims to detest. Kawashima revisits this idea throughout the film by having a nobleman repeatedly ask the rogue to re-start his stopped watch, as though the rogue is the only person in the brothel with the skill to keep the system ticking over. Indeed, far from being a sympathetic character, the rogue can be seen as a personification of the political class that took over when Japan became a democracy thereby posing the question of whether Japan is better off with leaders who are principled but unrealistic or charismatic crooks who use their knowledge of the world to make a fortune at everyone else’s expense.
Brilliantly paced, wonderfully acted, endlessly entertaining and very politically astute, Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den is not only a fantastic film but also a welcome companion to the great (but decidedly miserable) tradition of post-War Japanesedramas.
Released by the ever-wonderful Masters of Cinema, this film comes with no extras but a booklet of essays and documents including a tribute paid to Kawashima by the legendary director Shohei Imamura (who also co-wrote this film). Given that Kawashima is less well known than the likes of Ozu and Imamura, it might have been nice to have an extra discussing his career and legacy but this is still a handsome release of a very handsome film.