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April 29, 2010

Miyamoto Musashi

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Tomu Uchida - 1961
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

I first came across the name of Tomu Uchida in 1975. This was in Paul Schrader's essay on yakuza films published in "Film Comment". One of Uchida's earlier films, Theater of Life had been cited as key in the development of the yakuza genre. Uchida is a relatively unknown filmmaker, with the five DVDs in the Miyamoto Mushashi series serving as an introduction to a man whose career spanned from the silent era through the collapse of Japan's studio system. The character has been the subject of a trilogy by Hiroshi Inagaki which I saw several years ago. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Rentaro Mikuni, who appeared in the first film of Inagaki's trilogy, has the recurring role of a Buddhist priest in Uchida's series. How Uchida retells a familiar story is what makes a difference.

This first film begins immediately with two low level sumurai groveling in the mud. They have been on the losing side of the decisive battle that initiated the Shogun rule in Japan. At least in this film, if Uchida resembles any other filmmaker, it is Delmer Daves. in the use of the environment, of having his characters lives tied, sometimes literally, with the natural world. There are several shots of the characters completely dwarfed by the surrounding landscape. In one shot, it takes almost a minute to realize that what is being viewed is not a static shot of a mountain, but Kinnosuke Nakamura making his way through a trail, virtually imperceptible until he arrives near the base.

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Uchida could well have been reacting to some of the taboo shattering of the younger directors who emerged at about the time this film was made. That is not the traditional samurai movie is made clear when the star is seen wearing little more than his fundoshi. While not depicting sex, the scene of a woman sucking out the poison from the dirty leg of one of the samurai is unmistakably sexual. There is a vampiric lust in the face of Michiyo Kogure, with specks of blood on her teeth. It is later revealed that she has adopted the young samurai that she has rescued as her son, but what is indicated in their scenes together is that her feelings are more than motherly.

Uchida uses light simply, but effectively. This first film is about Miyamoto Musashi's self realization regarding the ineffectiveness of anger and general disregard of the lives of others. In a scene where he first meets the priest, Takuan, Rentaro Mikuni's face is lit, while Kinnosuke Nakamura is barely visible in the darkness of night. A fundamental sense of enlightenment is given a visual presentation through the use of a close up of Nakamura, increasingly visible with sunlight. It's literal filmmaking, yet Uchida is smart enough not to use the kind of musical accompaniment that would push this part of the film to an overemphasis in the style of Cecil B. DeMille.

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Posted by peter at April 29, 2010 12:33 AM

Comments

New to your blog, random search took me here but I like your taste in film and don't mind the fragmentary nature of your posts. You don't have to run a magazine for the lowest denominator here. Just say what is of actual interest to you and leave the summarization to imdb and wiki etc. I think you are actually on to a new form of film writing... one that is post Sarris post-Rosenbaum, post-culture critic as an elitist, and that's great. Like we said in SLACKER, "things are speeding up here at the end."

Saw ARTISTS AND MODELS two nights ago... for the first time since I was seven years old. And this week I've been reading The Five Rings by Mushashi.

Keep up the good work. You have a new fan.

Posted by: clark Walker at April 29, 2010 02:06 PM

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Posted by: radiospot at May 16, 2010 03:33 AM