While Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) may be the best-known of Yamanaka three surviving films, Kōchiyama Sōshun (the alternative English title, Priest of Darkness, makes little sense), another kabuki adaptation, is almost as good. The two leads from the later masterpiece, Kawarazaki Chōjūrō and Nakamura Kan’emon, play not dissimilar roles here: ordinary, down-at-heel men who become friends as they are forced to confront powerful forces of oppression. Kawarazaki stars as the title character, a shady gambling operator, while Nakamura plays Kaneko, a limping ronin in the employ of a ruthless gangster.* Both actors belonged to Zenshin-za, a left-wing theatre group whose members included several other repeat performers for Yamanaka (Kurosawa fans may recognize among them a young Katō Daisuke); by casting them here and in HAPB, Yamanaka avoids both established screen personae and more ‘official’ kabuki actors, who might have brought too much of their different kinds of baggage to their parts. The Zenshin-za troupe are the ideal performers here, completely at ease with both the theatrical machinations of the plot and the seamy naturalism of the mise-en-scène.
Above: Kaneko and Kōchiyama
As for that plot… I’ve seen it suggested the surviving print is missing some footage, which may account for one or two apparent lacunæ. In spite of these minor confusions (which may not all be unintentional), the plot remains a marvel of cunning construction. I understand it differs radically from the pair of kabuki plays from which it derives, and so assume the credit must go to Yamanaka and co-writer Mimura Shintarō for the skill with which they handle its various characters and complex twists and turns. Daringly, after all this painstaking workmanship, the film finally throws everything up in the air to end in irresolution, the last image being of a lone fugitive running desperately down a deserted street into an uncertain dawn. What follows is my attempt at a summary of the set-up.
Kōchiyama runs a gambling joint together with his wife (or perhaps concubine), Oshizu. Disguised as a priest, he swindles Ushi out of 50 ryo at a game of chess. Being a lackey of local boss Morita, Ushi is accustomed to doing the swindling himself. Another of Morita’s employees is Kaneko, an indolent former samurai who walks with the aid of a stick due to one leg being shorter than the other. Among his few duties is collecting money from traders, which allows him to visit the sake stall of Onami and flirt with her. Onami is worried about her good-for-nothing brother Hirotaro, who, it turns out, is a regular at Kōchiyama’s gambling house under an assumed name. When Hirotaro opportunistically steals a small knife from ageing samurai Kitamura, he unknowingly takes possession of a valuable heirloom, entrusted to Kitamura by his late lord, who himself received it from the shogun; failure to produce it on request would oblige Kitamura to commit seppuku. So long as these threads remain loosely intertwined, the tone is light and comic; even the grim fate hanging over Kitamura’s head is the occasion for levity, as Kaneko observes that, at 53, the older man has lived long enough already. After about thirty minutes, however, a minor character dies, and this death seems so bizarrely unmotivated, the character so minor, that it at first fails to register (I wouldn’t be surprised if missing footage is to blame here). Gradually, however, it becomes clear that the death has prompted a tightening of the threads, which, as they draw closer together, start to enmesh the characters, inexorably leading to a (thrillingly staged) violent climax. Yamanaka visualizes the lack of room for manœuvre by framing his figures in narrow passages, either outdoors in the narrow streets and alleys of an Edo slum, or inside, with walls, screens, doorways, columns and staircases hemming them in, often leaving them able only to go either forwards or back.
Above: A narrow Edo street, with objects of everyday life.
In Kōchiyama Sōshun, as in Yamanaka’s other surviving films, the narrative revolves around a disputed object―in this case the stolen knife, which, as it passes from hand to hand, becomes deflated and inflated in value, its status as a genuine artefact brought into question. The uncertainty that unexpectedly comes to surround what is supposed to be a priceless masterpiece takes on a wider social significance when an auctioneer remarks that such a knife, of a quality higher than one would associate with a merchant or farmer, would never have appeared on the market in the past; now they turn up more often. This fixes the action during the decline of the samurai class, when many men like Kaneko were forced to take on jobs that would have been considered beneath them. It’s significant that the knife has been passed from shogun to lord to retainer, the whole samurai hierarchy from top to bottom being thereby indicted for carelessness and irresponsibility, so that a layabout teenage thief is able to steal it with a minimum of effort or skill. We see nothing of the ruling classes until near the end, when the young lord, out of his depth, frets cluelessly over the knife, having exerted no influence over events. The real wielder of power is the brutish Morita, the lord’s frivolous irrelevance leaving ordinary people undefended against his tyranny.
The knife has a human counterpart in Onami (wonderfully acted by a teenaged Hara Setsuko), the beautiful young sake seller who becomes a kind of disputed human-object, fought over by those with both good and bad intentions while her brother treats her with callous indifference. With great delicacy, Yamanaka ensures that the true nature of the feelings Kōchiyama and Kaneko harbor towards Onami are not made explicit, making their combined efforts to assist her all the more moving. Whatever part romantic attachment might play, it doesn’t detract from the nobility of their defence of someone facing oppression and mistreatment. The hints of self-loathing and bitter self-knowledge that Kawarazaki and Nakamura lend to their performances give additional depth―the sense of men who understand that their lives have not been well lived, and that they now have a chance to redeem themselves. This is given its most poignant expression by Kaneko, who says to his ally that a man who can gladly die for another person can truly be called a man. As he departs, he leaves behind the toothpick he has been chewing (a habit he is repeatedly shown indulging, the toothpick visually rhyming with the walking stick he uses); after an amazing facial reaction shot of Kōchiyama, there’s then a cut to this toothpick in close-up, snapped and bent―one of the standout moments in a very fine film.
*In Humanity and Paper Balloons, the roles are somewhat reversed, with Kawarazaki as an impoverished samurai and Nakamura as a shady barber. Based on their roles in these two films, I would say that the pair deserve to be counted among cinema’s greatest double acts―what Lancaster and Douglas ought to have been.