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The Yagyu family's elder son sends an old and cheap looking pot to his young brother, ignoring that the pot contains a map showing where it was hidden a treasure of a million ryo. He tries to recover it but his brother's wife has sold it to some junk dealers. Finally the pot ends up in Yasu's hands, a kid whose father was killed although Tange Sazen was supposed to protect him from in his way to home, so Tange Sazen will look after Yasu. Written by
Tange Sazen is the prototype mould of the embittered ronin, at least in film; from the outside gruff and alienated, often physically disfigured in some way implying wounds inside, however a soul scarred but gentle, operating the sword with a mindful emptiness that cut through all sorts of social hypocrisy. From that mould was cast the outcast image of Zatoichi and others from him, a long tradition that has been replicated wholesale in the West.
In time he would be mass produced from that mould in a score of films as just another serialized avenger, I have seen one of these in The Secret of the Urn from '66 and it is much in line with chambara of that period, pure antihero pulp; but here he is grafted into something else entirely by Sadao Yamanaka, this lone wolf placed at the crossroads of the most precious transitory humanity.
We know that Yamanaka started out under Makino, officially the founding father of Japanese film, and had plenty of experience making jidaigeki before the material for this came together. Another two films survive by him, Priest of Darkness and Humanity and Paper Balloons, increasingly despondent vision as I read. The day his last film premiered he was drafted in the Imperial Army for Manchuria. Less than a month later he was dead from dysentery.
By 1935 though, all sorts of darkness was still amassing over Japan. Just four years prior Manchuria had been invaded and was shakily maintained, and in two years time would break out a second Sino-Japanese war as prelude to the final defeat. The film underlies these, the increasingly anxious mobility - here in the form of a frantic quest for money - and yet hope against hope that humanity can prevail.
It is all centered around a pot worth a million ryo, the pot itself is plain and worthless but points to unimaginable riches. Of course it ends up in the possession of a child, mapping to the richness that matters, while everyone around him remains clueless. From this is structured a multitudinous effort to apprehend it, to actually see what has potential to enrich the soul.
Most of the action takes place in a tavern with a small archery range inside, where customers take turns firing arrows to impress the female company. The proprietor is Tange Sazen, with his woman as hostess playing samisen and singing mournfully about the transient world. A wonderful relationship emerges here between these unlikely foster parents and the orphan worth a million ryo, full of raw intimacy that cuts deep.
A second layer is woven around and mirrored to another couple; the scorned brother of a daimyo looking for the pot all over Edo, for wealth as well as status, but who instead of looking for it sneaks out every day to flirt with a courtesan, and his calculating wife who urges him away from her every day for that money. There is no love between these two, except as a polite lie, and only deceit and increasing mistrust.
It would've been excellent as just a gentle comedy about the gaffes of love, but look what Yamanaka does to bring it together in yet another level, it's a masterful device really.
The archery range is lined with little dharma dolls for the winners, popular tokens in Japan for good luck. Customarily, these are offered with both eyes blank, the recipient fills one upon setting a goal, the second upon completion. To see with both eyes then in the utmost sense would be to be fully awakened, fully enlightened.
There is a lot of effort to see in the film, as mentioned, for example there is an amazing scene where the brother, a dojo master in name, is mistaken in the dark for a thief and beaten up by his own servants. But was he sneaking out for love or money, such are the wonderful dilemmas posed here. His wife sees him cavorting with the courtesan using a spyglass. Meanwhile characters spend the film looking for what is in plain sight of them.
But Tange Sazen, himself one-eyed, one-armed, meaning he has actually embodied, having lost and suffered, what it means that the world is fleeting and suffering, he sees; but sees from the heart. So even though devastating karmas are gradually set in motion over the course of the film, all having to do with money with lives hanging in the balance, he has the eye that cuts through. He knows there is no sense trying to figure what set them in motion, only to purify now. So having lost one, he has both eyes open.
Near the end Tange Sazen storms the dojo to challenge the students for money. Being a superb swordsman, he could have plainly got what he wanted. But he concedes to lose and be humbled.
Eventually no one is richer in gold but everyone is where it matters. Sazen is still baffled at his woman, tosses an arrow. The final image is of the gods on strings coming down to dance and smile.
Something to meditate upon.
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