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September 18, 2018

Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji

chiyari fuji.jpg

Chiyari Fuji
Tomu Uchida - 1955
Arrow Academy BD Region A

You know something's up when you're about to watch a Japanese period film, and the opening music track hints at less serious activities. Divorced from any images, the occasional jazzy stylings of Taiichiro Kosugi's score suggests an urban melodrama, or possible comedy, set in the 1940s. As it is, most of the expected tropes of the period samurai film are undermined or ignored here. Even the English language title is misleading.

The samurai isn't even the main character. We first see a group of travelers on foot, walking on a ridge dotted with bare trees, with Mount Fuji in the background. They are on their way to Edo, bound together simply sharing the same route and staying in the same inns. The samurai is with two servants, one whose job is specifically as his spear carrier. The samurai, Sakawa, is noted by his two servants, Genta and Gonpachi, to be avoiding sake during this trip, and also having a reputation as a mean drunk. Getting in the way of his duties, Gonpachi is followed by a very young orphan, Jiro, whose stated ambition to go to Edo to be a spear carrier.

The sometimes idealized view of Japan in the Shogunate era is examined for the illogic of the rules that governed social roles at the time. The travelers are temporarily unable to continue walking when a group of nobles block the road in order to have an outdoor tea ceremony. Several samurai take Sakawa to task for treating Genta as an equal, drinking sake with him in public. Sakawa's small sip of sake become full blown inebriation, angrily pulling rank on Genta. Mount Fuji, the tradition symbol of Japan, is seen as becoming obscured by clouds, just as the idealized notion of the country is lost amid increasingly absurd rules.

Tomu Uchida was a peer of such filmmakers as Ozu and Mizoguchi, with his first directorial credit in 1922. Unlike most Japanese filmmakers, he never aligned himself for any significant period with any of the studios, and left Japan to make films in Manchuria during World War II. Manchuria during this time was a Japanese colony. There appears to be disagreement regarding Uchida's activities after the war, as he did not return to Japan until 1954. Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji was Uchida's first film after fifteen years. Yasujiro Ozu, Daisuke Ito, and Hiroshi Shimizu are credited here as advisors to the production. Uchida also had the benefit of having Chiezo Kataoka, a major star of period films, appear as Gonpachi. Two of Kataoka's children are in the cast with his son as Jiro, and daughter as Okin, a very young singer and dancer, daughter to the woman, an itinerant shamisen player. I have to wonder if anyone involved in the writing of the screenplay had seen George Steven's Shane. The final scene, with Gonpachi walking alone into the sunset, refusing to let young Jiro tag along, recalls Brandon DeWilde calling after reluctant hero Alan Ladd.

Arrow was able to port over supplements from the French label, Wild Side. Included here are an interview with Uchida's son Yasuka, and a very informative interview with former publicist Kazunori Kishida which provides more details on the history of Toei Studios. French critic Fabrice Arduini also provides an overview of Uchida's career with excerpts from some of his other films. The consistently reliable Jasper Sharp also provides a commentary track made for this new release. The supplements should be of interest and value to those with a general interest in Japanese cinema.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 18, 2018 08:04 AM