Sticking a bloody spear into the movie canon
18 September 2018 15:51
When film buffs talk of ‘the cinematic canon’, it’s with a certain reverence, and understandably so. After all, this is the ultimate list, those sacred classics immune from the vicissitudes of fads and fashions.
The trouble is, no one can actually decide what ‘the canon’ actually is. There’s no formal inventory, no l’Academie cinématographique to pronounce judgement, just a vaguely agreed selection of enduring titles – titles that, in some cases, endure only because they’re considered to be part of ‘the canon’.
Dig into movies in any depth and the inadequacies of the canon become ever more clear. To make a blindingly obvious point, it was formed from what was available in an age when distribution was more limited. If the wise elders who decreed what was canon-worthy didn’t see it then it didn’t make the cut.
All of which brings us neatly to Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji, a Japanese film directed by Uchida Tomu (family name first, as is the custom in Asia). Even those viewers well versed in the classics of Japanese film – Kurosawa, Ozu and all – might not know it, nor its director: although made in 1955, it has only just had its first home video release in Anglophone territories. It is the first Uchida film so privileged, a neglect that will only bewilder those who see it.
The sanguinary title is somewhat misleading. For much of its running time, the film is remarkably gentle – a comedy, even. A period film, it might be called a Samurai road movie, concerning as it does the procession of a feudal lord to Edo (Old Skool Tokyo). Unusually, the focus is not on the aristocrat at the head of the party but on his servants, most especially the loyal Genpachi (Chiezō Kataoka, a familiar face in Japanese movies of this time). Uchida is not out to celebrate the social structure but critique it.
In his youth, Uchida was famously a bit of a lefty. Born in 1898, he was the generation who embraced modernity (associated then with Western influences and, especially, with movies) and took a dim view of tradition. He started making films around the same time of Ozu Yasujiro and Mizoguchi Kenji, famous names in Japanese cinema, and during the 1930s was as celebrated as either of them.
His best-known pre-war work was Earth (1939), a portrait of peasant farmers considered subversive by the studio who paid for it. In 1939, Japan was ruled by a nationalist military dictatorship; determinedly left-wing films were just a little problematic, no matter how talented the director.
Uchida didn’t make another film until Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji, not because he was blacklisted because other things got in the way. He went to establish a studio in the then-occupied Manchuria (probably to avoid government censorship) but there was a war raging and he produced nothing. Once things had quietened down on that front, he decided to stay in China and offered his services to the new Communist government, again without any success.
But 17 years of professional inactivity didn’t change him that much. Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji is far more interested in the marginal and the downtrodden than in the nobility that is so normally the focus of samurai movies. More even than his admirer Kurosawa Akira, Uchida demystifies the warrior code: his samurai, Sakawa, is a drunk, and a mean one at that. One of Genpachi’s tasks is to keep his master off the sauce.
There are others heading in the same direction and Uchida doesn’t ignore them. There is a silly, fussy little man hoarding a small fortune; could he be the notorious thief that the travellers have been warned about? Other companions include a man and his daughter, a pair of itinerant entertainers and a cute little orphan called Jiro, who attaches himself to Genpachi and is reluctantly accepted by the older man. (Not the least of Uchida’s achievements is to make a film where the cute little orphan isn’t a prize irritant.)
The journey starts in sunlight, both literal and metaphoric. For all the samurai can’t handle his drink, he’s actually rather benevolent when he’s sober, treating his underlings with rare decency for a man in his position (something that will cause trouble later on). Uchida makes some pointed digs at Japanese tradition – their journey is broken because some blue bloods have decided to have a picnic in the middle of the road and their social inferiors, including Sakawa, will just have to wait. But he sweetens these barbs with humour: Jiro unintentionally disrupts the picnic. He has a gippy tummy, you see, and they are down wind when he relieves himself…
But the skies darken, the rain comes. The thief reveals himself and is captured by Genpachi. The authorities, though, don’t believe a mere servant could have apprehended the villain and it’s his master who gets the reward. More than that, we learn the reason why some of their companions are making the journey: without spoiling anything, they are sad tales indeed. Uchida is able to crown them with a moment of respite, but any hope of a genuinely happy ending is dashed by the climactic fight that gives the film its title.
Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji alone should be enough to establish Uchida as a major filmmaker. His handling of character, and especially tone, is remarkable: few films change gears so effectively. Nor is it his only triumph: Chikamatsu’s Great Love in Osaka (1959), A Hero of the Red Light District (1960) and, above all, A Fugitive From The Past (1965) are all masterful films. Domestic critics rate the latter amongst the best Japanese films ever made and its not hard to see why – at once crime film and social history, it manages to be deeply affecting too.
So why isn’t he and, much more importantly, his work better known? The obvious answer is because his films didn’t travel, for whatever reason. (At least, they didn’t travel to English speaking territories – the French, all too typically, are more aware of his work.)
This is not to point fingers: no one sees everything, especially not when they don’t even get the chance. Rather it’s to question the value of canons in the twenty-first century, especially when the circumstance now is so different to those when the wise elders first began to decree which films would be lionised: it’s simply easier to see things these days, and it’ll get easier still if the more grandiose claims for streaming are realised.
Uchida is far from the only director whose stock is rising. We’re more aware these days of many other great directors – hell, entire film cultures – that deserve closer attention, and aware too that there are doubtless many others still languishing in obscurity. And that’s even before we get to the wider recognition of genre flicks, something that did not much vex our more high-minded predecessors.
These discoveries make this a glorious time to be a cinephile, but they can only make us question received wisdom embodied by a canon. Surely there are other ways to organise film history, ways that that better acknowledge – and celebrate – the beautiful untidiness of the medium.