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Photo above: Uchida Tomu directing a film, probably Swords of Death (Shinken shōbu, 1971)
Note: As I’ve already done several times for this blog, I am interrupting my series of reviews of the films of Uchida Tomu to post my general observations on Uchida, his current reputation and his art.
Did Uchida Tomu virtually abandon social and political engagement after he returned to Japan from China in 1953? Did this great moviemaker, who had been, among Japanese directors, one of the most trenchant critics of Japan during the prewar era, become, in the postwar era, some kind of sellout?
Uchida’s own comment concerning his political orientation – the only one that I have been able to find on the topic so far – is somewhat ambiguous. Stuart Galbraith IV, in his DVD commentary to the five-part Toei Miyamoto Musashi series (1961-1965), quotes Uchida from his autobiography – who in turn was approvingly quoting the words of his producer and friend Makino Mitsuo – as saying “I’m not a Red; I’m not a White; I’m a member of the Japanese Filmmaking Party.”1
However, this seemingly apolitical stance should be seen as at least partly an evasion. During the time of the “Japanese Red Scare” of the 1950s, Uchida had appeared to some in his own industry as deeply suspect, because of his years in Communist China assisting the Chinese film industry. It was in his own interests to downplay any influence that Communist ideology might have had on his art, though as Craig Watts has shown, that influence was considerable. On another level, though, his statement was the simple truth: filmmaking, not politics, was unquestionably the aspect of his life most important to Uchida. Political and social agendas were always, for him, subordinate to the need to express himself through art.
However, some Western commentators have gone further, maintaining that Uchida, in his postwar work, deliberately retreated from social and political themes by embracing almost exclusively the samurai genre during this era.2 The blogger for Japanonfilm is one critic who has made this claim. In a review of A Fugitive from the Past, this blogger wrote, “Though known before the war as a prominent ‘leftist’ director, Uchida’s post-war work was almost completely in jidei-geki [sic],3 distinguished more by depth of performance than by technical daring or social criticism.” Regarding the technical aspect of Uchida’s work, I suspect that few people, seeing for the first time the surreal imagery of The Mad Fox (Koiya koi nasuna koi, 1962), reviewed favorably by the Japanonfilm blogger here, or the majestic widescreen images of The Outsiders (Mori to mizuumi no matsuri, 1958) – a work which more than matches in beauty and power any Hollywood widescreen film of that era – would conclude that these films lack “technical daring.”4
Furthermore, the Japanonfilm blogger appears to assume that the Japanese period film – of which Uchida admittedly made very many during this period – has always been either apolitical or downright reactionary. On the contrary, beginning in the 1920s – the first significant cinematic decade in Japan – and continuing into the 1930s, as seen particularly in the films of Daisuke Itō and Mansaku Itami, the genre had often been used for left-leaning political and social comment.5 Yomota Inuhiko has written of Itō that the protagonists of his films, far from being blind followers of the powerful, “…were men ostracized by the authorities, struggling for survival, while assailed by feelings of despair and nihilism.”6 7
On the other hand, according to Yomota, Itami Mansaku “had a playful, humorous sensibility, overflowing with a parodic spirit. The works he shot utterly eschewed the usual morality informing conventional jidaigeki, like consciousness of belonging to a community, or heroism based on personal advance.”8 For Itami, swordfighting scenes were at best a necessary evil; he preferred to create non-heroic heroes, such as the nebbishy protagonist of his prewar classic, Kakita Akanishi (1936, also known in English as The Capricious Young Man).
The militarist regime, just prior to and during the Pacific war, had put a stop to these rebellious and irreverent tendencies. However, it wasn’t in its best interests to eliminate samurai films entirely, as the genre could be, and often was, used for militarist propaganda, as in the case of Mizoguchi’s Miyamoto Musashi (1944).
After the war, American Occupation censors failed to grasp the political ambiguity of the classic period film. They believed erroneously that such works invariably advocated blind obedience to feudal authority. As a result, the Occupation banned them almost entirely.9
Thus Uchida, in employing the period film after the Occupation to condemn or at least question feudal authority, as he did most famously in A Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji (Chiyari Fuji, 1955), was working within an existing tradition rather than breaking with that tradition. However, it could be argued that he went further than most of his filmmaking peers in his critique of feudal conventions, particularly in his depiction of the tragic character of Sakawa Kojūrō (Shimada Teruo), who points out the contradictions and hypocrisies of the samurai-dominated social order, though he is himself a samurai.
In our reviews of Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (Naniwa no koi no monogatari, 1959) and Hero of the Red-Light District (Yōtō monogatari: hana no Yoshiwara hyakunin-giri, 1960), we’ve discussed how these films set in an earlier century raised social issues relevant to mid-20th Century Japan. This is particularly true concerning the dubious status of women in Japan and the suffering caused by prostitution in particular. To prostitutes, as with almost all outsiders depicted in his work, Uchida always extended sympathy.
This is true even in the case of Hero of the Red-Light District, in which the prostitute Otsuru could easily be seen by the naive viewer as the villain of the piece. In that instance, though Otsuru destroys the life of the sympathetic hero, Sano Jirō, her actions are shown to be the inevitable result of the cruelty of Yoshiwara’s destructive culture, of which she, too, is a victim. She is depicted as the eager pupil of the vicious pimps Hyogoya (Mishima Masao) and Oken (Sawamura Sadako), and adopts their corrupt values, to the extent that she sees the ceremony in which she is elevated to the status of tayū as her liberation, rather than the apotheosis of her oppression. So when Sano finally turns on her, it is a case of one victim of injustice attacking another: a very Uchidaesque tragic situation.
Uchida’s postwar films set in contemporary Japan even more consistently display the director’s social and political concerns. His first modern-era film after returning from China was Twilight Saloon, which raises, in a lighthearted, satirical spirit, such difficult and controversial issues as Japanese war guilt, right-and left-wing radicalism and the uncertain future of the Japanese people. It has even been suggested that the protagonist, the bohemian painter Umeda, who refuses to further his own career in the postwar world because he had prostituted his art to create propaganda for the military during World War II, reflects Uchida’s own sense of guilt for having betrayed his left-wing roots during the years when he supported the war.
A Hole of My Own Making (Jibun no ana no nakade, 1955), a much more melodramatic work, deals in part with post-Occupation Japan’s painful economic subservience to America.The film blames this situation not on America, but on Japan itself, whose imperialist hubris paradoxically brought about the country’s de facto colonization, though this insight is never expressed explicitly. (The work represented Uchida’s final collaboration with Yagi Yasutarō, the left-wing scriptwriter who had written or co-written the screenplays for Uchida’s most important 1930s films.) As pointed out in my review, the visual and aural details – protest demonstrations, abandoned factories, the scream of American jets flying overhead – is unsubtle in its depiction of what Yagi and possibly Uchida himself viewed as Japan’s decline. Uchida’s later postwar works tended to be far more nuanced.
In The Eleventh Hour (Dotanba, 1957), Uchida tackled labor-management relations in Japan, specifically as they affected the status of Permanent Resident Koreans in Japan, known as the Zainichi. When a coal tunnel accident traps a group of miners, others soon come to the aid of their fellows, including a group of Zainichi Koreans. However, the Korean miners learn that one of the managers has uttered a racial slur against them, and they’re so disgusted by this that they (temporarily) boycott the rescue effort. Uchida’s movie was only the second Japanese film ever to deal with the problem of discrimination against the Zainichi.10
With The Outsiders (Mori to mizuumi no matsuri, 1958), Uchida continued his condemnation of Japanese discrimination against minorities by focusing on the plight of the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido. Again, Uchida was a pioneer; though previous films (mostly documentaries) had depicted the Ainu with varying degrees of sympathy, none prior to Uchida’s film, to my knowledge, had openly condemned the treatment of this ethnic group by the dominant (Japanese) culture.11 Even more significantly, Uchida treats its protagonist, Byakki, a militant Ainu separatist, sympathetically, though he’s not uncritical of his extreme stance.12 And as I point out in my review of the film, Uchida portrays the Ainu women as the most unfortunate victims of this unjust situation.
The Japanonfilm blogger appears to see A Fugitive from the Past, in its focus on social issues, as an outlier among Uchida’s postwar films. I would argue the contrary: that Fugitive was the culmination of a passionate social commitment that had been present throughout Uchida’s postwar work in both his period films and (particularly) his contemporary ones. Throughout his career, Uchida had consistently demonstrated his solidarity with underdogs of all kinds. But in his 1965 masterpiece, he focused on three such underdogs: a destitute man who uses stolen money to create a whole new identity for himself; a prostitute whose life is utterly changed through a chance encounter with this man; and a detective who destroys his career trying to solve a crime the man is alleged to have committed. Uchida’s keen awareness of the tragic incompatibility of the goals, and even the values and worldviews, of these three obsessed people gives the film its weight and depth.
Finally, Swords of Death (Shinken Shōbu, 1971), his final film, is unique in Uchida’s lifework in that it appears to look beyond the bounds of Japan to the contemporary situation in the wider world. It seems to me nothing less than an allegory of the Cold War. (For an explanation of this interpretation, see my review on this website.) Although very imperfect (and possibly unfinished), it demonstrates Uchida’s great artistic courage, as well as his willingness to drive himself ruthlessly to explore new styles and themes, even in the face of his impending death.
In summary, despite his brief, regrettable wartime flirtation with Fascism, Uchida’s career seems to me exemplary, even heroic. To me, he is an artistic role model, not only in his unique creative power, but in the moral decency he displayed in his work, both before and after the war.