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 Abandon Social Cinema in the Postwar Period?

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?

An old headshot photo of a Japanese man in suit and tie wearing glasses
Producer Makino Mitsuo, undated photo

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

A still young Mao Tse-tung is seated at a desk, writing, with light entering the room from the window beside him
Mao Tse-tung, 1938

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.

A young man in ancient Japanese clothing lies sleeping on the ground, while a young woman in white stands over him; there is a small fire on the ground to the left of the man
Ōkawa Hashizō (on the ground) and Saga Michiko (standing) in Uchida’s The Mad Fox (Koiya koi nasuna koi, 1962)

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

The Truth About the Japanese Period Film

An old photo of a modern Japan man of about 35, his head viewed in profile.
Director Itō Daisuke, undated photo

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

Old photo of a modern Japanese man with dark hair and a mustache, staring directly into the camera
Director Itami Mansaku, undated photo

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).

A trick double-exposure photo, showing the same actor in the appearance of a young, attractive samurai, facing the camera (right) and as a homely, balding retainer, seen in profile (left)
Kataoka Chiezō (double role) in Itami Mansaku’s film Kakita Akanishi (1936) [production still]

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

A young man with a samurai topknot and kimono turns his head to look at something offscreen, as a river appears in the background
Shimada Teruo (aka Kataoka Eijirō) in Uchida’s A Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji (Chiyari Fuji, 1955)

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.

Social Criticism in Uchida’s Period Films

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.

A Japanese woman dressed in the costume of a feudal-era courtesan faces the camera, flanked by a man on her right and a woman, also dressed as a courtesan, behind her and to her left; this woman appears to be speaking to her.
Mizutani Yoshie (aka Mizutani Yaeko) (center) in Uchida’s Hero of the Red-Light District (Yōtō monogatari: hana no Yoshiwara hyakunin-giri, 1960)

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.

Social Criticism in Uchida’s Modern Films

In a beer hall in the 1950s, an angry Japanese man wearing a jacket, tie and hat points accusingly at someone offscreen, while to his left a younger, fatter man, sitting at a table, looks disapprovingly at what the other man is pointing to
Katō Daisuke (seated) and Tōno Eijirō in Uchida’s Twilight Saloon (Tasogare Sakaba, 1955)

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.

In a modern (1950s) Japanese house, an attractive young woman in modern dress, standing, looks towards the camera, while behind her and to her left, seated at a table and wearing kimono, a slightly older woman looks at her
Kitahara Mie (in foreground) and Tsukioka Yumeji in Uchida’s A Hole of My Own Making (Jibun no ana no nakade, 1955)

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.

Three Japanese men, two young and one middle-aged, all coal miners, in the darkness of a mine, look at something offscreen with fear
Ebara Shinjirō (center) and Shimura Takashi (right) in Uchida’s The Eleventh Hour (Dotanba, 1957)

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

A Japanese woman, wearing white and sitting on a hospital bed, holds an apple with one hand and takes the hand of a man, who stands with his face away from the camera, with the other
Fujisato Mayumi as an Ainu woman in Uchida’s The Outsiders (Mori to mizuumi no matsuri, 1958)

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.

Social Criticism in Uchida’s Final Films

On a rural train, a young Japanese woman in traditional dress looks backward towards something with a surprised look on her face
Hidari Sachiko in Uchida’s A Fugitive from the Past (Kiga Kaikyō, 1965)

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.

In feudal Japan, a woman and a man in the foreground, both in rough dress, look at a samurai in the background seated on a rock and holding a child in his lap
Okiyama Hideko (standing, left), Nakamura Kinnosuke (seated) and Mikuni Rentarō in Uchida’s posthumously-released final film, the allegorical Swords of Death (Shinken shōbu, 1971)

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.

Uchida was not a sellout

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.


  1. Galbraith, Stuart IV (audio commentary), The Ultimate Samurai: Musashi Miyamoto, 5-disc Collector’s Edition, Animeigo (2010). ASIN: B0038P1D0K. Galbraith’s commentary is heard on the first disc only; the remaining four discs have no commentary track. (Note: this is probably a very loose translation of the Makino quote: it has been translated in several ways.)
  2. Of the 19 films that Uchida directed from 1955 to the end of his career – I am counting his two multipart series, the trilogy Sword in the Moonlight (1957-1959) and the five-part Miyamoto Musashi (1961-1965), as two single works rather than eight individual ones – five of the 19 are set in contemporary Japan (that is, their narratives take place more or less during the time period in which those films were released) and one (Hishakaku and Kiratsune: A Tale of Two Yakuza, 1968) is set in the Taisho era of the early 20th Century. The other 13 are set in feudal-era Japan, though many of these (e.g., The Horse Boy, Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka) cannot rightly be called “samurai films” per se.
  3. The correct term is jidai-geki, “jidai” meaning “era” or “age” in Japanese. (The misspelling may be a typographical error.)
  4. The Japanonfilm blogger admits that, at the time of writing his post, he had not seen such important Uchida non-period films as The Outsiders, Twilight Saloon or A Hole of My Own Making, conceding that the latter two especially were said to be “technically innovative.”
  5. Anderson, Joseph L.; Richie, Donald, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry – Expanded Edition, Princeton University Press, Kindle Edition (2018): see pp. 64-66 (for Itō) and pp. 91-92 (for Itami). ASIN: B07DMVNK15.
  6. Yomota Inuhiko, What Is Japanese Cinema?, Columbia University Press, Kindle Edition, p. 53. E-ISBN: 978-0-231-54948-6.
  7. As noted elsewhere, Itō wrote the screenplay for Uchida’s last film, the posthumously released Swords of Death (Shinken shōbu, 1971); this script was Itō’s final work as a filmmaker before his death in 1981.
  8. Yomota Inuhiko, op. cit., p. 62.
  9. Anderson and Richie claim that of the 67 native productions released in Japan in 1946, only seven were period movies (that is, jidai-geki films), all of which were completed prior to the end of the war, and in 1947, out of 97 total Japanese productions released, only eight, less than 10 percent, were period films. The authors further observe that of these meager few, the plots of the films had to be completely changed to satisfy the Occupation censors. Anderson and Richie, op. cit., p. 174.
  10. Kobayashi Masaki’s The Thick-Walled Room (Kabe Atsuki Heya, released in 1956, though completed in 1953) was apparently the very first Japanese production to deal with this subject, though the main theme of that film was Japanese war guilt.
  11. Marcos P. Centeno Martín, in his article The Fight for Self-representation: Ainu Imaginary, Ethnicity and Assimilation, demonstrates how films made by both Japanese and American filmmakers during the first half of the 20th Century consistently depicted the Ainu – despite the fact that they probably resided in the Japanese archipelago long before the ethnic Japanese did – in terms of their “otherness,” often seen as “savages,” or, ahistorically, as a dying race similar to Native Americans, though the Ainu population actually remained more-or-less stable during this period. (Interestingly, in wartime propaganda films, this concept of the unassimilatable Ainu was abandoned in their depiction of the ethnic group as part of the Japanese “family,” with Ainu soldiers being shown for the first time.) The Outsiders was, to my knowledge, the first film ever to depict the Ainu people as political actors, though Centeno Martín dismisses the film as a “romantic” depiction of them, compromised by what he considers to be inappropriate borrowings from the American Western genre that falsely equate the Ainu with Native Americans.
  12. It should be noted that Uchida’s film proved prophetic, in that such militancy became increasingly commonplace in the Ainu community in the 1970s and after.


  1. I appreciate the notice of my blog. At the time of that particular post, I was relying to a considerable degree on people like Alexander Jacoby and Jasper Sharp for biographical material and, as you kindly note in your footnotes, there were (and are still) a lot of Uchida’s movies I had not yet seen. It’s a process of discovery.

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