A Great Day in Tokyo: 18 great prewar film directors

Members Page

(Continued from Page 1)

In The Kuroda Affair (Kuroda Sodo, 1956), this connection between the long waiting period and the action appears in abundance, in which the actors’ performances are more minimalistic than obviously theatrical (in that sense, too, one might say they are Lang-like rather than Ford-like).

The Kuroda clan is facing a double challenge: the danger of being disposed of by the shogunate and the increase in the number of Christians, as the religion is outlawed. The retainer, Daizen (Chiezō Kataoka), discovers a conspiracy by the hidden Christian daughter, Hide (Hizuru Takachiho) and Judayu (Shinji Nanbara: the actor later changed his given name to “Koji”), to build and steal a warship from the young lord Tadayuki (Eijirō Kataoka), and then destroy the ship, announcing it to the shogunate through his old acquaintance, Takenaka (Ryutaro Otomo). For example, on the night of the festival, Hide, pretending to be drunk at the Kuroda-bushi dance, begs Tadayuki to open the gate, goes outside, and meets up with her comrade, the military strategist, amidst the crowd. Tadayuki follows Hide as he staggers from room to room, and after the gates open, Judayu follows him through the crowd. The scene ends with a long shot of Hide playing around Judayu, who is lying down on a dead leaf and inviting him to join her, suggesting that the two are not unrelated, but this is only a small amount of time compared to the long chase and pursuit.

It is a tense moment in which we are not allowed to even look away, just like the moment when the knives of the Christian pursuers are thrown to stop the Shogunate’s interrogators from handing over the plans of the warships under cover of darkness. And while Daizen, holed up in a samurai residence, confronts Judayu and his men with cannons at the ready, and while secret agents deliver or fail to deliver news, the main characters can only sit and wait.

In this film, the vivid cutbacks between waiting and momentary resolution are repeated over and over. There is a fixed shot of Daizen and Takenaka playing a game of Go near the border of the clan, facing each other, alternating with a shot of an artillery shell to destroy a military ship. A blowgun pierces both of the ninja’s eyes, soundlessly, beneath the floor where Hide and the military doctor are enjoying tea while smiling at each other.

If Tomu Uchida is close to Roberto Rossellini in Angst (1954, German language version), it is because he was able to depict this suspense and waiting time side by side. The fact that what they have in common is not apparent “realism” or “naturalism” can be proven by the fact that Tomu Uchida used animation and joruri (traditional Japanese puppet theater) in The Mad Fox (Koiya koi nasuna koi, 1964) and Rossellini used opera in Joan of Arc at the Stake (Giovanna d’Arco al rogo, 1954). They are the key to their cinema, that is, they are more open to the present. In other words, they knew that in any scenography, it is important to continuously capture and document the performing body and reconstruct it as a fiction. This is the power of the moving image that influences us to this day.

In The Mad Fox, based on Izumo Takeda ‘s 1743 joruri play Ashiya Doman Dainagon, astronomer Abe Yasuna (Hashizo Okawa), who has fallen into madness after his lover Sakaki  (Michiko Saga) is murdered in a succession dispute, is dancing on a stage set in a field of yellow flowers. This scene is said to have been shortened considerably from the length of the 17th Century Kabuki actor Kiyomoto’s original piece, but as a standalone scene it is outstanding. When the yellow curtain falls, Sakaki’s twin sister Kuzunoha (also Michiko Saga), and her parents are standing at the back of the screen.

In this film, the arrangement of the characters, who often take up positions of depth within the frame, and the pictorial design of the characters in the back of the film (the title of which is based on an emaki scroll at the beginning of the film) function like a trompe l’oeil, obscuring the sense of geography. At the climax, the farewell scene between Yasuna and the fox woman – who had transformed herself into Kuzunoha after Yasuna had been wandering in his hallucination – is shown on the divided stage. When the real Kuzunoha and her parents visit Yasuna, the fox-woman reveals her identity and she and Yasuna abruptly part ways.

The film, which had been developed as a period drama on a set, suddenly reverts to a documentary of a performance originally given on a joruri stage. The close-up of Yasuna waking from his madness and taking out the scroll of secrets cuts back to the scene of Hashizo Okawa dancing in Yasuna’s mad scene, giving the impression that all the plot developments afterwards may have been Yasuna’s delusion, and the film ends again on the stage, albeit empty of people. Like Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach (Le Carrosse d’or, 1953) or Manoel de Oliveira’s My Case (Mon Cas, 1987), this is a film that can be interpreted any way one likes.

Now, realism does not mean disguising nature as if the camera were not there, at least not today, when images have become another reality that surrounds and threatens us beyond the confines of the cinema. Many of these films that expose the reality of performance in front of the camera and provoke thought about how images are formed in front of the audience were once commercial failures or unreleased rather than popular, but they were films that prepared us for the times to come. The Mad Fox may be such a film.

By the way, if we consider Tomu Uchida’s attempt at a period drama from the present perspective, what kind of film succeeded it? We can say that Nagisa Oshima’s The Rebel (Amakusa Shiro Tokisada, 1962) is a “negative” version of Uchida’s Rebellion from Below. In this work, the success of a peasant uprising as happens in Uchida’s film is impossible, and there is only despair with no way out, as, relying on historical facts, Oshima shows the shogunate oppressing and torturing the Christian peasants and other people who will all eventually be killed.

It goes without saying that Nagisa Oshima and his films, starting from his theatrical activities at Kyoto University, always have theatrical sets and direction, up to his last film Taboo (Gohatto, 1999), in which the set built on the stage at the end vaguely reminds us of the set of Uchida’s last film, Swords of Death (Shinken Shobu, 1971). This aspect of “theater = cinema” is an important factor about Oshima’s films too, but it has been largely neglected in Japan.

In addition, in this film The Rebel (a.k.a., The Christian Revolt, or The Revolutionary), a political film that followed Night and Fog in Japan (Nihon no yoru to kiri, 1960), but in the historical-film genre, Oshima makes it very hard for viewers to see anything clearly by using darkness and the one-shot-sequence for the suppression scene at the beginning of the film. In this scene, in which the officials attack the peasants who had been talking in the dim light of the room, and take a pregnant woman instead of the tribute as punishment, viewers can’t determine who is who because of the tracking shot, which remains in the distance from the performers until the end of the scene.

This shielding of the viewer’s gaze is still powerful as an image that resists the weakening of the viewer’s gaze through the manipulation of the television image, which requires all images to be clear and visible. The role of propaganda media in the postwar period was taken over by television, which replaced film, and then replaced in turn by images on the Internet.

The postwar filmmakers resisted this. At the same time, however, the character of Oshima’s The Rebel solidifies the establishment of a fictional space, and it is ironic that the film is marked by a fascination with the tradition and technology of the Toei studio system that serves it. Making shots difficult for the viewer’s eye to catch continued until 1961, when Oshima made The Catch (Shiiku) as an independent film. Oshima’s films may have influenced Uchida’s A Fugitive from the Past (Kiga Kaikyo, 1965), shot on 16mm with unclear and coarse particles. In the history of postwar Japanese cinema, the tradition of the shielding of the viewer’s gaze has continued by Shinji Somai and by Kiyoshi Kurosawa today.

At the time of Uchida’s death, Oshima wrote an obituary for him,1 but mentioned only that he was impressed by Uchida’s A Hole of My Own Making (Jibun no ana no nakade, 1955) – which tells a story of a dark, cruel family declining and is Uchida’s most erotic work – and that he loved the composition of shots in the films of Uchida. This is not meant as a link between Oshima and Uchida’s cinema at all, but is a reminder of the importance of Uchida in the history of Japanese Cinema after World War II.

On the other hand, along with Uchida’s The Mad Fox, Seijun Suzuki’s Heat-Haze Theatre (Kagero-za, 1981), which also uses Kabuki in the film (as well as Suzuki’s later works), comes to mind for comparison. He is a filmmaker who, contrary to Tomu Uchida, has shocked viewers by neutralizing distance and jump cutting and leaping movements, as in the beginning of Heat-Haze Theatre. However, his later works, such as Capone Cries a Lot (Kapone oi ni naku, 1985), which explicitly shows that he shot San Francisco at Yokohama Dreamland (which was closed in 2002), should be seen as documentaries of an era in which the fictional space which was supported by the Nikkatsu studio era was no longer possible. It may be called decadence, but it may also be said that he had prepared in advance for the gaze of the DVD / Internet era, in which construction leads directly to the gaze of deconstruction.

Looking back from this point, we can see that the power of constructing historical dramas is inescapably limited by history, and that we cannot watch or make historical dramas today without bearing in mind that they are precisely documents of the space that meets the actor’s body at a certain time. This sense is something that is lacking in today’s age of the gaze, which, as I mentioned earlier, is inundated with visual images that are forced to be excessive and clear, with a “naturalness” designed to make it seem as if nothing outside the frame exists.

Perhaps this sense can be found by considering, with digital video and various new technologies, what works in the imagination to find off (or off-off) spaces and scarcities. We must pass through invisibility in order to discover the lure of visibility again. When we reach that point, Tomu Uchida’s films will surely show us a new face once again.

(Daisuke Akasaka, 26 October 2021)

Patrick McInerney

In the 21st century, Tomu Uchida is no longer just a director; he’s a quest. After spending months reading about him, scouring the less-than-reputable but nevertheless essential corners of the Internet for copies of his films, reaching out to film scholars and archives around the world and even bumping into his descendants online, I was asked by a friend of mine if I liked his movies. I had never even considered it, and by the time I had wrapped my head around as much of his canon as I could reasonably manage, it no longer mattered. And if you’re reading this, it likely doesn’t matter to you, either.

The fanatic timeline is the same for many of us. Most start out as “movie fans,” one of the only people we know in real life who has ever seen The Breakfast Club. A fraction of us put on a tie and call ourselves “film enthusiasts” because we now use words like “truly,” “benchmark,” “auteur,” and “prophetic.” A fraction of that fraction venture out into our little niches. We begin with a canon and make it our mission to tinker with it, to make our own canon. Factions coalesce in South American film noir, or in wuxia films, or Italian Neorealism, or Lubitsch’s German silents. Others’ nerves were struck by Kurosawa or Mizoguchi movies, but the story is the same no matter where we land: like Indiana Jones said, we “find the edges.” Who did Kurosawa watch as a kid? What came before? Why does Japanese cinema have a distinct visual style? Or does it? Were benshi really more popular than actors?

Before long, we find ourselves many pages into many Google search results, looking up pdf’s of obscure screening playbooks from previous decades. Some titles look interesting, but of course they’re not readily accessible. An email to the screening’s hosts couldn’t hurt. Many of the titles are in the public domain, so signing up to a private tracker to get our hands on them doesn’t feel unethical. (And let’s face it, those obscure titles that have never had releases end up there by fellow film lovers, who have access to the film and can’t bear to see them waste away). By the time we find Uchida’s Earth, it doesn’t matter that we’ll have to translate the German hardcoded subtitles into English by hand, one phrase of dialog at a time. We’re already behind, seeing as the reviews we’ve read of the movie have employed the tried-and-true backhandedly snarky tone, implying that the most famous movie from a guy is good, but the obscure stuff is way better. We translate that damn movie anticipating the adventures in finding the next one. And it doesn’t matter when we find out there was a subtitle file already in existence somewhere online. In that moment, does it even occur to us to ask ourselves if we liked Earth? I did, but I found myself not caring about my own opinions.

Most people have never heard of Akira Kurosawa, and most Kurosawa fans have never heard of Tomu Uchida, and out of the perhaps merely hundreds of people who are aware of his work, my guess is dozens of us, maybe a hundred or two, have seen more than one of his movies. And the story remains the same whether your interest is in Expressionism, underground animation, chanbara or Nigerian musicals: you are one of a vanishingly small group of people who, with a moderate amount of obsession, could become worldwide experts in the subject. Through my own obsessions, I teamed up with a ragtag gang to convince strangers to give us money to give to the Library of Congress to scan and release some silent films from Frank Borzage that were being painstakingly preserved in their archives.

The reason I latched on to this group’s idea to release the movies was because, after all the self indulgence I’d asked our film writing community to indulge me in (my opinions on Tarantino are devastatingly fresh, right?), I had never contributed a single thing to the art I loved. This seemed like a way to remedy that. Today, I can say that I’ve contributed something small but lasting to film. I want to ask you to do the same for Tomu Uchida. Run wild. Earth had hardcoded German subs because it was made when Germany and Japan were war allies and distributed films to each other; maybe call up some German film archives to see if they have prints wasting away. Find out who distributed his films back in his day and follow the breadcrumb trail until you have numbers and emails today. Google scholarly works that include his name. If you can’t afford JSTOR fees, there are ways around that. Search YouTube for his name, and look in the comments section of every video related to him. His grand nephew is in there, and is still in contact with the side of the family that has some of Uchida’s stuff. Start a Kickstarter to raise the money to scan the prints. Find them. Find the edges. You can contribute something to film, and to Uchida’s legacy.

The circle of movie lovers that are reading this is small enough that when you start poking around, your name will make the rounds. Where do you think the people on those silent film forums work? (They work in the archives: those are now your contacts. Be nice to them. They’re amazing people, and are willing to help.) Maybe someone from a film archive will email you with the only surviving print of a movie and just wants to see if you’d be interested in seeing it. It’s not Uchida, but come on. You can’t pass that up. Maybe you’ll get interested in benshi narration and can find Japanese speakers who want to try their hand at narrating a silent Uchida movie. You could screen it online, your audience being the first pairs of eyes in a century to see his movies that way. There’s a lot you can do with determination as your only resource.

I’ve got to admit, I burned out. I tried to eat all my Halloween candy in one night and got sick. Pace yourself. It’s a hobby: four hours a day, max, and do one other thing in that day besides your day job. But please do something. The directors you love, loved Tomu Uchida. You’ll love him, too. Please make the conversation two-way. Nothing is perfect. I don’t think many of his films survive. Nothing is finished. My guess is that there are multiple films of his that are being preserved and are in dire need of scanning and releasing. Nothing lasts forever. But they can last for a while. And they’re on this Earth right now.


  1. Eiga Hyoron, October 1970, pp. 24-26