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The only completely preserved silent film directed by Daisuke Ito, this film relates the life of a legendary thief, Jirokichi the Rat in an exquisite original story and through the revolutionary use of dynamic intertitles. The skillful benshi narration featuring a mixture of Edo dialect and Kansai dialect is highly entertaining. Written by
Unlike France or Germany, so few films have reached us from the dawn of Japanese film, from the time when film was truly a matter of invention and risk all around the world. When you could still see in novel ways, both as filmmaker and viewer. So it's a unique opportunity we have to be able to see this, so far the only surviving silent film of this filmmaker.
It is more than simply a well crafted artifact, or important only as a museum relic; it is a vital film, really good, because it allows us to see an entire cinematic world being shaped with far-reaching imports to this day.
Story-wise, it is about a popular Robin Hood figure on the run from authorities who becomes entangled with two women. Domestic audiences at the time were over-familiar with the story from folk tradition and kabuki, these are called into question as well, the idealized preconceptions; we know going in that the man stole from rich daimyos and expect the popular heroism that goes with redressing the social balance, except the rug is pulled from under our feet and we get to see instead how devastating karmas have been set in motion by what we had reason to rejoice for.
One of the women knows who he is, is also familiar with the idealized image that we are, and arrays herself accordingly expecting money. But money to buy her freedom from her scoundrel of a brother. The other doesn't, to the end, looks at him with fresh eyes and falls in love, for who he is, but finds herself a hapless pawn of the tumultuous changes he unleashed ever since he stole from her father. He gets a taste of these as well, the seeds he's been sowing; so in turn he must swoop in and extricate her using those same talents that made life miserable for her, but of course at the cost of ever having her or true love.
So in this case the superficial story about heroism is woven in such a way that a world of superficial pleasures and gross injustice, the Edo that gave birth to both character and story, would be transformed with the character into a world of sorrow and fleeting beauty. We get to see the man lying on a rooftop at the end, gazing with bafflement at the moon above. Of course we are as baffled as he is with life that can be so complicated, so difficult to make sense of. It's a better Mizoguchi film than I have seen by him, subtler, but more on that in a little while.
Shots of a full moon form the transition between segments, a transient moon illuminating dark waters, plum gardens at the gates of hell.
It's an unmistakeably Japanese visual space, the floating world of Hiroshige's woodblock prints; but a space cultivated with a modern eye for motion and impressions. The finale takes place during night-time across rooftops and a wooden bridge lined with lanterns, this is filmed with the setups, the architecture from human crowds and rapid cuts that we find in Soviet montage.
So there are perspectives fused together all through the thing that allow us to navigate a rich visual tapestry, one of the richest I know, the most rewarding, from the zen soul of deepest Edo to then modern ideas about the cinematic eye and entire cinematic worlds shaped from these.
The jerky motions during the fight scenes, with the camera sweeping from side to side, actively participating, the DP achieved by strapping the camera on his cameraman's body and throwing him in the middle of the action. He was a great man that changed the ways we engage with film space. Kazuo Miyagawa was tutoring on the set of this, Kurosawa's legendary cinematographer in Rashomon, Mizoguchi's from Ugetsu onwards. Watching those, we can see perspectives that have been transferred across the vocabulary of cinema.
So much of this is spellbinding, a world knowingly spun in such ways that would reveal its essence. So much of cinema was changed here.
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