GORE IN THE STORE
BLOODY SPEAR AT MOUNT FUJI ****
Directed by Tomu Uchida.
Starring Eijirō Kataoka, Daisuke Katō, Chiezō Kataoka, Motoharu Ueki.
Adventure/Action/Drama, Japan, 94 mins, cert 12.
Out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Films. RRP £24.99
If you’ve never heard of 1955’s BLOODY SPEAR AT MOUNT FUJI, or its director Tomu Uchida, then you wouldn’t be alone as, in spite of a prolific and both critically and commercially successful career in Japan between the years 1922 and 1970, his work has gone mostly unappreciated and unknown in the west. However, Arrow Films are doing their best to rectify that with this great Blu-ray release of this charmingly endearing, yet tragic, tale of life in feudal Japan.
Firstly, it should be said that the title and (admittedly very cool) cover art is somewhat misleading. It appears to promise plenty of stylish, and brutal, samurai action whereas the film itself is a much quieter, and gentler, comedy drama. The spear only gets bloody in the last 10 minutes and, even then, we don’t really see much blood and the climatic scene of violence is, intentionally, sloppy and unsatisfyingly chaotic.
The story focuses on Sakawa Kojūrō (Eijirō Kataoka), a kindly and well-liked samurai who unfortunately can’t handle his drink, who is accompanied by his two bumbling servants, Genta (Daisuke Katō) and Genpachi (Chiezō Kataoka), whilst travelling on the road to Edo. On the way they cross paths with a disparate group of characters drawn from across society including an impoverished father taking his daughter to be sold in to prostitution, a notorious tattooed thief hiding from the authorities, a traveling musician and her young daughter and a little orphan boy, Jirō (Motoharu Ueki) who dreams of becoming a samurai and befriends Genpachi. On the way to their destination there are laughs, tears and explosive diarrhoea (due to eating too many persimmons).
I am woefully ignorant of classic Japanese cinema, having shamefully never even watched any Kurosawa, so I couldn’t honestly say how this compares to its more famous contemporaries. However, coming to this as a complete novice, I really enjoyed it and found its voice and tone refreshingly unique. There were some similarities to Hollywood westerns of the same period, which I am more familiar with, such as the stirring opening score. Also, the young boy’s relationship with Genpachi, and the downbeat ending, reminded me somewhat of the cowboy classic SHANE.
I was actually quite surprised by how charming I found it. There are many nice little understated character moments from nearly all of the cast, and the relationship between Genpachi and Jirō is genuinely sweet and touching.
It’s a funny film too. There are lots of low-key humorous moments such as the accidental catching of a criminal and the repeated appearance of the unfortunate bar patron that Sakawa decides to fight after getting annoyed by his nose.
Although, for the most part, it’s quite light in tone, it does have a serious and sombre streak running throughout, and a serious social message underpinning everything, which leads to a tragic and downbeat finale. Highbrow satire of the class system in Japan sits comfortably alongside toilet humour, and the tonal shifts never feel jarring.
In terms of special features, this disc contains what you’d expect from an Arrow release of an older more obscure film. There’s not a whole ton, but what’s there is good quality such as a commentary by film writer Jasper Sharp and three archive interviews; one particularly lengthy (52 minutes!) and informative one with Yasuka Uchida, the son of the director, and another shorter one with Kazunori Kishida, a publicist for the film studio. Lastly there’s an interview with the French film critic and programmer Fabrice Arduini. All of these are great for context on the film and director, especially if, like me, you were formerly unaware of them.
As for the picture quality, it’s not the crispest or most vibrant of HD transfers, but it’s decent enough. It’s an old film, and one presumably not shot with the highest of budgets, and so I assume this is the best version available. It by no means looks bad, but it’s also not going to wow anyone with its visuals.
Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable little movie, that’s definitely worth checking out for those who enjoy international cinema and are looking for something a little different.
Reviewed by John Upton