In the course of seven years Sadao Yamanaka directed an astonishing amount of films: twenty-three. That’s over three feature-length films a year. Few directors reach 23 films in a lifetime, much less in seven years. As someone who wishes to make films, I can only stand and marvel at what Yamanaka was able to do; I can only stand here, mouth agape, and be incredibly jealous at what he was able to accomplish. But, there is a sad thing regarding Yamanaka’s filmmaking: he did not portray Samurai in a kind light. In fact he usually made them look bad as he does in this film The Million Ryo Pot (or, “The Pot Worth a Million Ryo”) which stars Denjiro Okochi as the samurai Tange Sazen.
But, anyway, because of Yamanaka’s portrayals of samurai as less than noble, he was sent to the Manchurian front during the war and died there as a soldier at the age of 28. And now, because his films were either blacklisted, destroyed by the American attacks on Japan, or burned during the MacArthur-occupation, only three of his twenty-three films survive. It is my intention over the next few weeks to do a write up on each film as I view them, but right now let’s focus on his oldest existent film: Tange Sazen: The Million Pot Ryo.
The plot is silly, as the film is certainly a comedy, and, according to Donald Ritchie’s book “A Hundred Years of Japanese Cinema”, was originally intended to be a serious drama until Yamanaka was given charge of it, at which point it was turned into a farce. The plot centers around a large black pot, which Hitchcock would called a Macguffin or a useless plot device/item which is used to give the characters something to do. The pot has a map carved onto its surface, and two different Japanese houses want possession of the pot once this fact becomes known. Unfortunately this does not become common knowledge until after the pot has been thrown out and given to scrap dealers. From there the pot is given to a little boy so he has a bowl to keep his goldfish in, and then after the boy’s father is killed, the pot (and boy) come into the possession of the samurai Tange Sazen.
Something that I did not expect from this film was the filming style. It is both distinctly Japanese (lingering shots of “nothing” ala Yasujiro Ozu are all over the place in here), but also very clearly shows that Yamanaka was watching American comedies. The framing and staging of certain dialogue scenes are so un-Japanese that they look to have been lifted straight from a Marx Brother’s film! It was said that Yamanaka viewed the American cinematic-grammar to be the best, and that fact clearly comes across in the film while somehow still retaining the cultural visual norms I expect from a Japanese film of this era. But on top of this is the wondering action photography at the end of the film. The hero faces off against six or seven other warriors and the entire scene is filmed in one shot. The agility and athleticism of the main actor is incredible and very surprising.
The film’s dialogue is funny, and the characters all interact with each other in such ridiculous ways that you can’t help but laugh. Watching the main samurai quibble with his landlady throughout the film is hysterical, and some of the interactions with the child are fantastic. Also, and this goes back to the American influence, there are two scrap dealers in the film who seem to be a sort of more reserved Abbot and Costello (or maybe Laurel and Hardy is a better comparison?).
I’m shocked at how fresh the film feels, and I’m saddened by the destruction of Yamanaka’s work. But I’m very excited to go through the remaining two films of his work that exist, and I suspect that in years to come Sadao Yamanaka will number among my favorite directors.
Here are some links relating to Yamanaka. The first link is to the UK DVD (which is region locked!) that contains all three of his films: