Daisuke Ito’s Masterpiece Discovered

Issatsu-Tasho-Ken (1929)

The print of “Issatu-Tasho-Ken (一殺多生剣)”, Daisuke Ito’s 1929 film, was discovered and is scheduled to be screened at Kyoto Film Festival in October.

Probably it is not a familiar title to you; even the name of the director, Daisuke Ito, is not usually among “all-time great Japanese directors” list. You might have seen the still photograph above in some of the Japanese cinema history books, though. The film was produced during the pinnacle of Jidaigeki cinema, late 1920s and early 30s, and Daisuke Ito was the central figure of the era. The reason the late 20s being the most productive years of Jidaigeki is usually attributed to grave recession and social uncertainty at the time. 
Many of socio-cultural changes in Japan during late Meiji era and Taisho era had driven imperialism/capitalism to cul-de-sac, causing economic depression, ever-increasing unemployment and strains of tragic labor problems. This environment provided the Petri dish for Proletariat movement, not just in political theater but also in art and literature. In case of cinema, some Jidaigeki auteurs, such as Daisuke Ito and Masahiro Makino, redefined the genre from kid’s entertainment to adult’s art, to express social environment of the time in re-framed historical settings. Daisuke Ito’s films were extremely popular and his works in late 20’s include “Chuji Tabi Nikki”, “Zanjin-Zanba-Ken” and “Issatu-Tasho-Ken”.
But many of his films were missing for several decades. While early Ozu films were discovered by foreign audience thanks to prints availability, the Jidaigeki genre was usually associated with Kurosawa both in Japan and overseas. Only older generation who remembered the shocking encounter with Ito’s and Makino’s silent films repeatedly asserted these films should not be forgotten.
In 1991, the parts of “Chuji Tabi Nikki” were discovered in Hiroshima, which underwent digital restoration. This was the beginning of re-discovery of Ito’s influential works. The abridged 9.5mm prints of “Zanjin-Zanba-Ken” was discovered in 2002. Now, we have another discovery, “Issatu-Tasho-Ken”. No details were given, but I assume it is abridged version.
According to Tadao Sato’s “The Birth of Japanese Cinema”, “Issatu-Tasho-Ken” is about small-time Samurai’s indecisiveness in the face of changing times. These samurais with petit bourgeois mentality were metaphor for those who in audience; intelligent but powerless. It doesn’t sound outdated, does it?
Issatu-Tasho-Ken (1929)
Directed by Daisuke Ito
Written by Daisuke Ito
Starring: Utaemon Ichikawa

Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (1975)

We sometimes forget that history is statistical approximation of collected experiences. And this process of collection is heavily biased by the political view, cultural understanding or artistic taste of each individual collector. When it comes to the life of a complex man, the collection tends to diverge, then we start to wonder how much of the story is actually reflection of each collector. Welcome to the world of “Citizen Mizoguchi”.

This film may be a bit difficult to follow, if you are not familiar with the events described in a series of interviews. For example, it is not clearly laid out what happened during the shooting of “Yokihi”. Takako Irie was supposed to play the role of Yokihi’s sister, but the director insulted her in front of everybody, saying “you are no good, you must have forgot how to act, because things you do recently are the role of demonized cats (in B-horror films).” According to many accounts, Mizoguchi appeared to have grudge against her since he had been hired by her to direct “Water Magician” as Irie in leading role, 30 years earlier. He felt humiliated, though Irie had no ill intention. This documentary does not introduce this episode in ‘clear’ perspective. Rather it handles it as a collection of spoken words by people who knew.
After watching this film, I bet you wouldn’t know any more about Mizoguchi, the man, than you had known before. You may see, for the first time, stills from a couple of lost films you had never known, but that’s nothing. This film just confuses you as to what kind of person he was. He could be vein and self-conscious but very sincere and honest. He could be a tyrant from hell and gentle soul at the same time. He hates women and loves them. But that may well be who he was. If the life of a man were logically explained in two hours, then he wouldn’t have made “Sansho the Bariff”, “Ugetsu” or any masterpieces we come to love.
Kenji Mizoguchi : The Life of a Film Director (1975)
ある映画監督の生涯 溝口健二の記録
Directed by Kaneto Shindo
Written by Kaneto Shindo
Starring ; : Takako Irie, Daisuke Itô and Kyôko Kagawa

Isuzu Yamada (1917 – 2012)

Isuzu Yamada in Sisters of the Gion (1936)
Isuzu Yamada, one of the most renowned actresses in Japanese cinema history, passed away on July 9, 2012. She was 95.

Her memorable screen performance includes Mizoguchi’s “Osaka Elegy”, Naruse’s “Nagareru” and Kurowsawa’s “Thone of Blood”, to name the few. She started her career in her teens in Nikkatsu and was recognized quickly for superb acting skills. Her portrayal of damaged, rebellious teenage mistress and Geisha in Mizoguchi’s “Osaka Elegy” and “Sisters of the Gion” was breakthrough in prewar Japanese cinema, and boosted both Mizoguchi’s and Yamada’s careers. Before WWII, she was a top star at Toho, starring in many popular star vehicles.
While the contemporary of Setsuko Hara, she is best remembered for three pivotal Kurosawa’s films; “The Lower Depths”, “The Throne of Blood” and “Yojimbo”. In later years, she shifted her field to popular Jidaigeki on TV and traditional dramas on stages. She received Order of Culture in 2000 (first ever as an actress).
I am always sucked into magic of her performance, either in Kurosawa’s masterpieces, in early Mizoguchis or lesser-known gem by Chiba. Many people remember her as “extravagantly urbane” women roles, but if you examine closely, her performance is nuanced yet powerful. Even that (in)famous speech at the end of “Sisters of the Gion” is saved by her delicately balanced delivery, just enough dose of emotion.
Which is your favorite Yamada’s performance?

Isuzu Yamada seleted filmography

Osaka Elegy (浪華悲歌, Naniwa erejii) (1936)
Sisters of the Gion (祇園の姉妹, Gion no kyōdai) (1936)
Nagareru (Flowing) (流れる) (1956)
Throne of Blood (蜘蛛巣城, Kumonosu-jō) (1957)
Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, Tōkyō boshoku) (1957)
The Lower Depths (どん底, Donzoko) (1957)
Yojimbo (用心棒, Yōjinbō) (1961)