Tange Sazen: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Toshio Tsuda
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens July 17
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Tange Sazen — the one-eyed, one-armed ex-samurai swordsman — is one of those literary characters with a mythic presence, who seems to be the stuff of legend rather than a modern writer’s brain. Lounging about in the archery gallery run by his sharp-tongued wife Ofuji, wearing a woman’s red robe underneath his white kimono, he is the very picture of Edo foppery — until trouble starts. Then the famous temper flares, the deadly sword comes out — and the troublemakers are soon retreating in confusion and humiliation. “Beaten by a cripple!”

The creation of Fubo Hayashi (1900-35), a popular writer of fiction and reportage, Tange Sazen debuted in the Mainichi Shimbun in 1927 and became an immediate hit. The next year, he was featured in no fewer than seven films and the total grew to 33 over the next four decades, until Hideo Gosha’s “Tange Sazen: Iaigiri (Tange Sazen: The Secret of the Urn)” in 1966.

Now there is a 34th, Toshio Tsuda’s “Tange Sanzen: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo (Tange Sazen: The Pot Worth a Million Ryo).” Starring Etsushi Toyokawa as Sazen and Emi Wakui as Ofuji, it is nearly a shot-by-shot remake of the 1935 Sadao Yamanaka film universally considered the best of all the Tange Sazen lot. Though a director for only five years, until his battlefield death in 1938 at the age of 28, Yamanaka made 26 films, only three of which survive. He was also a diligent student of Hollywood films — though his own were less imitations of foreign models than reimaginings springing directly from his original cinematic mind.

Sazen may be a terror with a sword, but Yamanaka’s film is more of a comedy of errors than a swashbuckler. It is blessed with a flawless script by Shintaro Mimura, whose plot gears mesh with a classic Hollywood precision, without sacrificing its roots in Japanese humanism. Also, jidaigeki superstar Denjiro Okochi as Sazen and Kiyozo as Okiku are pitch perfect, with Kiyozo’s dry scorn complementing Okochi’s lazy (but highly athletic) swagger.

Thus the question — why did Nikkatsu and its partners dare to remake a masterpiece? The answer resembles Bill Clinton’s when asked about his affair with Monica Lewinsky: They did it because they could. Only cineastes still watch Yamanaka’s black-and-white film, leaving a huge swath of younger moviegoers for whom the characters and story are still undiscovered territory. As Takeshi Kitano proved last year with his hit “Zatoichi,” a loose remake of the 1962 Kenji Misumi classic, this can be very lucrative territory indeed.

Tsuda, a veteran cameraman directing his first feature, is no Kitano, however. Instead of reinventing his eponymous hero for a new era, he mostly follows in Yamanaka’s footsteps, changing camera angles but little else. If I hadn’t seen Yamanaka’s film, I might have found Tsuda’s a mildly entertaining, competently made period take on that old sitcom standard: the bickering-but-loving middle-aged couple. But since I have, I feel sorry for Tsuda, who is in the unenviable position of being an Elvis imitator following the King himself. He’s got a great song, but only better-than-average pipes.

It begins with Sazen battling a crowd of opponents — and receiving the wounds that will end his samurai career. Years pass. The scene switches to the estate of the local lord, who has just been awarded the “privilege” of repairing a shrine at Nikko and is desperate for money. Then he remembers giving his feckless younger brother Genzaburo (Hironobu Nomura) a pot as a wedding present. For a reason best not detailed here, the pot is worth one million ryo — an incredible sum — and if the lord can retrieve it his worries will be over.

Before he can trick Genzaburo out of it, however, Genzaburo’s chuckle-headed bride (Kumiko Aso) sells it to two junk dealers. Once he realizes what it’s worth, Genzaburo starts to scour all of Edo for it.

Back to Sazen, who is now fighting a running battle with two hatamoto (high-ranked samurai) who have attacked a regular customer at the gallery. An old man is fatally slashed in the dust-up and, before he dies, asks Sazen to care for his orphaned grandson. Named Chobiyasu (Akashi Takei), the boy has only a pet goldfish left in all the world. Sazen buys him a certain pot to put it in and takes him home to Ofuji who — wouldn’t you know it — hates kids.

The stage is set for a comedy of absurd coincidences and sexual battles, together with a drama of class struggle and family strife. The pot is a Macguffin, Alfred Hitchcock’s term for the object that sets the plot in motion. A mark of the script’s excellence is that the pot also takes on a new meaning as a container of life (Chobiyasu’s fish) and, in the process, takes on a life of its own.

Etsushi Toyokawa is not a bad choice for Sazen. He is tall and broad enough to intimidate, droll enough to amuse, but compared with the grace, panache and speed of Okochi — the samurai Nureyev — his swordwork is nothing special, beyond the fact that a former No. 1 heartthrob is capable of it.

Emi Wakui likewise breaks the mold as Ofuji, playing the cranky opposite of the good-girl types she is best known for. Still in her early 30s, she deserves praise for bravely playing Ofuji as a woman on the verge of hagdom, who is saved by her love for her impossible man. But compared with Kiyozo’s dry-eyed deadpan — the mask of a great comedian — Wakui’s permascowl begins to wear.

Am I another geezer nostalgic for the good old days? Well, see both films and compare. But while Tsuda’s is an option, Yamanaka’s is a must.

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