When I purchased the Masters of Cinema blu-ray of this film, I had no idea what to expect from it. I knew that it was a highly regarded period comedy film, but I knew next-to-nothing of the story. The title (apparently) roughly translates to “A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era” and the setting is just prior to the ending of the Shogunate. I am, to be quite honest, ignorant of this period in Japanese history and so cannot speak much regarding the film’s context. However, suffice it to say this: the movie is very funny.
Bakumatsu Taiyoden revolves around three main stories with some background noise going on at all time. I imagine that this is sort of the Japanese answer to the American screwball comedies (things like Duck Soup and His Girl Friday). The film’s setting is a brothel in the Shinegawa district (apparently a famous Red-light district). The main plot involves two prostitutes competing to earn the most income from their clients before the end of the month. Secondly there is a man who shows up at the brothel intending to have a good time but lacks any of the funds to do so and slowly weasels his way from debt to practically running the place. Meanwhile, as those two plots play out in the foreground, a background plot involving the Westernization of Japan and a plot to blow up a boarding house for foreigners simmers in the background.
The film takes some serious turns, mainly with the bombing plot line (but even that is handled in a very frantic, His Girl Friday sort of manner), but always recollects itself and ends up being none-too-serious. One particularly great moment in the film involves one of the prostitutes, living with no money and constantly being bothered by men she can’t stand, decides to commit suicide with a client she doesn’t like. The only problem is the man is a chicken and tries to back out at the end only to end up being shoved into the sea just as she changes her mind. Later he returns to the brothel dressed plays a prank on her trying to make her think she actually killed him.
This extremely light-hearted and funny take on the woes of prostitutes seems like a disaster waiting to happen, and in many respects it is (in a good way: just like Bringing up Baby), but the black and white photography is brilliant, the scripting of the comedy is very much on point, and across the board the film features strong characters and great performances. People zip around the sets, cross paths, talk over each other, appear in-and-out of scenes and plot lines, and eventually everything ends up one giant mess.
Bakumatsu Taiyoden is an interesting contrast on the (much better known in the west) Kenji Mizoguchi films which deal with the same subject matter, but in a totally different way. Mizoguchi told focused and heart-breaking stories about the oppression women faced in Japanese society (both modern and period), but this film uses that same circumstance to build frantic levels of plot, comedy, and characterization.