It’s often said that one ought to watch at least one new movie that they’ve no previous understanding of once a month, in order to develop more fully as a blossoming cinephile. Citing complacency and over-exposure in equal measure, I have to admit that t’s not often that something wholly unique comes my way, but in Yûzô Kawashima’s Bakamatsu Taiyô-Den, a formalism-riffing comedy starring Frankie Sakai released on Blu-ray and DVD this month, that holy grail of unknowingness has certainly come my way.
While an associate of Shôhei Imamura, Yûzô Kawashima is scarcely represented outside of his home country. The liner notes to this recent edition of Bakamatsu Taiyô-Den (and as such pretty much every review of the film) boast of how the film was named as one of the five greatest Japanese films of all time by that countries Kinema junpô publication (a Sight & Sound of sorts, or so we’re told), which is a bold claim, and one which the reasoning behind may not initially be clear. The film opens with a minor prologue, set in the mid-19th century, in which an amazing sense of place is laid firm. As “foreigners”, a recurring evil largely only spoken of, are chased out of a town by Samurai-types we see the ward of Shinagawa laid out, before the director cuts to a modern day Tokyo, flipping the whole thing on its head. This post-modern switch comes unexpected, but affirms the light hearted tone from the off. The narrator from the future knows what’s going on. He teases other possible directions for which the story might go in, ultimately settling on one that revolves around the “glory days” of the prostitution industry. And this is where Kawashima gets subversive, occasionally perhaps, to the point of confusion to Western eyes.
To many viewers the political commentary might not be immediately clear, such is the cultural differences between East-Asian culture and that of the West, but thanks to the supporting material provided with the film clarity is accessible. In short, the full title of Bakamatsu Taiyô-Den is A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era, the intention of which was to act as a commentary on the Sun Tribe cinema of the time. The Sun Tribe movement, which projected images of youthful frivolity revolving around sex and other assorted hedonistic acts were designed as propaganda in support of a controversial bill directed at extending the country’s prostitution laws. In presenting displays of debauchery the figures behind them positioned the films as precautionary tales that claimed to show a Japan in the wake of banned prostitution, in which “innocent” figures were the targets of lustful deviants. In Bakamatsu Taiyô-Den, Kawashima highlights the problems with the Sun Tribe propaganda by humanising the situation. He highlights the corruption of the people who run the brothels, and he places a human face on prostitution. Sloganeering such as “I’m a prostitute, so I’ll be damned in Hell. Deception is my business” sits amongst the pratfalls and sight gags, recalling the most powerful statements made amongst chaos by other comic-provocateurs such as Chaplin, or René Clair, in films such as The Great Dictator and À nous la liberté.