Great crimes, tragedies, and suffering occur alongside the silly, mundane, and lovely. This can be difficult to illustrate in a film but Sadao Yamanaka accomplished it in his great 1936 film Kochiyama Soshun, one of the director's only three surviving films. The influence he exerted on Japan's better known great filmmakers can be seen in how Kochiyama Soshun starts out feeling like an Ozu film and ends feeling like Kurosawa.
Kochiyama Soshun was a real person, a well known figure in Japan from the early 19th century, Yamanaka's film is based on a kabuki play about his life. Played by Chojuro Kawarasaki, he comes across as a laid back, virtuous, and incredibly clever thief. We meet him playing shogi, a Japanese variant of chess, with a man who swindles people on the street by having them stake money on games. But Kochiyama outswindles the swindler, winning 50 ryo. Chess proves once again the universal shorthand for showing a character to be clever. Taking the money back to the gambling den he calls home with his wife, we see him telling her to grant every request for a loan that comes in, one of the ways we start meeting the diverse characters in what turns out to be a mostly ensemble film.
The standout is sixteen year old Setsuko Hara in one of her first films. She plays Onami, a sweet sake seller who's loved by everyone. She already conveys that uncanny, unaffected innocence and affectionate nature which made her one of the most popular actresses in Japan for decades. Her voice is a little higher pitched and she seems to speak a little more through her nose than she does later, maybe a sign of less confidence as a performer, but she's pretty adorable.
Onami's concerned about her younger brother, whom she seems to be acting as mother for. He spends his time at Kochiyama's gambling den and then he gets himself into real trouble when he runs off with a prostitute owned by the local yakuza boss. Onami, who we see is so shy she doesn't even want to enter the gambling den to look for her brother, suddenly finds herself faced with the idea she might need to sell herself to the yakuza as restitution.
A ronin named Kaneko (Kanemon Nakamura) has started working for the same gang though his sense of personal honour keeps him from feeling ashamed of disobeying an order, as when he goes to punish Kochiyama for winning the shogi scam but instead ends up becoming Kochiyama's drinking buddy.
Meanwhile, the film also gives us the story of an older samurai whose knife Hiro stole and then sold to an auctioneer. The film takes its time to follow a couple other guys competitively bidding on the item and then having them run into the samurai, who buys it back from the winner, though he seems convinced that it's fake. It's not perfectly clear he really thinks it's fake--it might be a bargaining tactic. This thread does end up becoming relevant in the end when several seemingly unrelated stories come together for an amazing and brutal fight sequence.
I'd been trying to track this movie down for years until a few nights ago when I found, as happens surprisingly often, the whole thing's been uploaded to YouTube. Check it out before some asshole decides he can claim to YouTube he somehow owns the copyright to this public domain 1936 film.
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