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.