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August 01, 2012

A Tale of Archers at Sanjusangen-do

tale of archers.jpg

Sanjusangen-do, Toshiya Monogatari
Mikio Naruse - 1945

A story about a samurai era archery competition is not something to be expected from Mikio Naruse. Even if the subject matter seems out of place for a filmmaker better known for his domestic dramas, Naruse's hand is definitely there visually.

The traveling shot of the main characters walking, with the camera framed just ahead, with a wall in the background, filmed at a mildly diagonal angle is used again here. I think of this type of shot as one of Naruse's visual signatures. In this film, we see Kazuo Hasegawa and Sensho Ichikawa walking down the road, having a friendly chat. Another brief shot that Naruse includes in other films is that of a reflection in a mirror. Here we briefly see Kinuyo Tanaka checking her hair. The shot is something of a visual joke, cut directly after a shot of Ichikawa shooting an arrow.

The story, as such, is about Ichikawa as the son of a famous archer, preparing to compete to redeem the family name, as his father, the region's previous champion, committed suicide under questionable circumstances. Tanaka is the woman who raised Ichikawa, currently running a hotel. Hasegawa is the stranger in town, who comes to mentor Ichikawa in the art of archery.

Filmed in Kyoto during the last months of World War II, the film might be interpreted as apolitical. Rather than being a call for nationalism, or extolling the virtues of loyalty to the emperor, the film might well be seen as gentle encouragement to overcome feelings of defeat. Much of the time, until Hasegawa comes on the scene, Ichikawa complains that he is unable to even come close to the record of 8000 target hits. Hasegawa's cover is dropped when he finds out that his mother is in town. Whatever A Tale of Archers is, or isn't about, filial loyalty trumps everything else.

There is a brief scene of action, with the baby faced Hasegawa taking on a small gang of ruffians. And who doesn't love watching the lone samurai whipping out his sword to take several challengers at once? Naruse strong suit would still be the battle of wills between his characters, but it's still a pleasure to watch the kind of scene normally not associated with his better known work.

Kazuo Hasegawa and Kinuyo Tanaka have had long, well documented careers, working with several of the top Japanese directors over several decades. Sensho Ichikawa is the question mark here. What little I could find indicates a brief career with hardly a handful of credits. Based on several online searches, it would appear that A Tale of Archers was Ichikawa's final film following three other films made in the late Thirties. Hideo Oguni, the screen writer, is better known for his collaborations with Akira Kurosawa. As such, the scene of Hasegawa's sword fight in the streets appears in retrospective to have been a rough sketch for the kind of scenes Oguni would write for Toshiro Mifune.

Posted by peter at August 1, 2012 07:48 AM