This week’s director profile, much as was the case with last weeks, falls into the realm of cinematic what-ifs. However, while Jean Vigo was not a very prolific director, this director was extremely prolific. I introduce to you: Sadao Yamanaka. This Japanese director began his career around the age of twenty as an assistant director. Starting out as an AD and working your way up was a common practice in those days in Japan. The very famous director Akira Kurosawa began his career this way and many of his ADs went on to become successful directors as well.
As I said, however, Yamanaka is most remembered as an extremely prolific director. It is estimated that between 1932 and 1938 he directed around 26 films. That’s an average of nearly 4 and 1/2 films each year for six years. It’s remarkable and gives me a bit of a headache just thinking about it. Today we throw praise at Ridley Scott because he usually directs one movie every year. Much of this is due to the manufacturer nature of Japanese film studios during the 30s: films were more or less product (much as they were in America), and yet it was the goal of the individual directors (men like Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi among others) to put their personal artistic stamp on everything they made.
Those men, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Ozu, and others, all called Yamanaka the greatest of the Japanese filmmakers. They called him the master of the cinema. Yet, why do I list Yamanaka among the cinema “what-ifs”? If he was such a prolific director then why is he not better known? Why is Sadao Yamanaka such a cinematic secret?
Much of this relates to the Japanese Imperial Army and their war actions in China and modern-day Manchuria. Yamanaka’s films were considered fairly subversive for the extremely imperialistic and politically conservative Japanese. So, in 1937 when Yamanaka’s film Humanity and Paper Balloons opened in theaters, Yamanaka was drafted into the army and sent into Manchukuo, which was a Japanese ruled outpost in modern day Manchuria. While there he died of dysentery. He was twenty eight years old.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government burned many of his more provocative films and then years later Douglas MacArthur, after basically installing himself as the president of Japan, destroyed any films which he felt went against a democratic world-view. Thus, many of Sadao Yamanaka’s films were converted to ash. Today only three of his films survive in full: The Million Ryo Pot (1935), The Priest of Darkness (1936), and Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937). That’s it. A director with such an incredibly prolific career and body of work is reduced to three films. But what marvelous films they are.
His films are at turns funny, humanistic, remorseful, and exciting. His films show a strain of the DNA which Kurosawa would later morph into his bombastic, exciting, visual storytelling, and most of all his films show a lot of concern for the human spirit. The Million Pot Ryo is little more than a farce of the Samurai genre. The Priest of Darkness, an adaption of a kabuki play, is a convoluted plot involving a stolen knife with serious humanist undertones. And Humanity and Paper Balloons is a film which looks at the impoverished, everyday members of Japanese’s common society.
Much like Jean Vigo, I am simply glad that any of Yamanaka’s work has been left behind for us to enjoy. That any of it survived at all is somewhat of a miracle. He might have been remembered as Japan’s greatest artist had his films survived, but there’s no way to know. His contemporaries, those people who saw his films first hand, remembered him as their greatest director. I’m going to assume they knew what they were talking about.
Sadao Yamanaka’s films have been released in a wonderful DVD set by The Masters of Cinema from the UK. The DVD is region locked and will require either a Region B player or a Region Free player. Either way, the DVD is very much worth seeking out.