Near the turbulent end of the Edo era, a man returning to Japan after exile in America searches for his wife and becomes swept up in the current of revolution in this incisive period drama from the great Shohei Imamura.
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Imamura Shohei is not, perhaps, if one has seen films like Vengeance Is Mine, Intentions Of Murder, Insect Woman or Karayuki-San, the first choice one might imagine to have made such a richly comedic masterpiece of Japanese (hyper-)nationalist satire as this. Yet, the above films are not only helpful, but darn near essential viewing in order to grasp the full flavour of what Imamura has made out of his (and Ogata's) Quixote figure, the Holy Fool who is so blindly faithful to his nation and his 'great cause', and who commits deeds for them that should, if properly viewed, elicit all of profound horror, chaotic laughter and even tearful sympathetic empathy. For if one is unaware of the bitter truths of the Japanese woman of the Meiji era unwittingly sold into prostitution by their families, as documented in Karayuki-San, then an entire layer of the film is lost in the idea of a fictional man who could have, in Imamura's vision, founded such a system in the course of no less than a dream of the great glory of his country.
Yet, this is not to say that the film cannot be enjoyed without such a background. The satire is sharp, yet the comedy itself is broad and the arc of Ogata's Muraoka is one of the most complete and all-encompassingly humanist character portrayals in all Japanese film. Imamura is used to portraying men as scoundrels, as victimisers, murderers, petty thieves and calculating demons; Muraoka is all of these things and yet none of them. He cannot be defined by any single characteristic any more than any non-fictional being could; yet, he can stand alone or for the entirety of Japanese culture, as well as for any other great figure in Imamura's work (and, dare I say it, either male or female). The characters with whom he interacts, too, are at turns majestic and base, glorious and vainglorious, realistic and archetypal, and likewise acted just as well, from the indelible figure of Muraoka's Dulcinea, Shiho (a name that seems to bear a profound resemblance to Imamura's own), a part just as well-portrayed as Ogata's, to every third-rate would-be pimp and whore they come in contact (and, my heavens, there are a lot of them!) over the span of some forty-odd (very odd, indeed) years in the brothels, mansions, ships and huts of the film.
Whoever you are reading this, you are doing yourself a disservice in not seeing this film. This is, I have no doubt, one of the as-yet-undiscovered-masterpieces of world cinema, a testament to the ability of film to provide insights which no other media can provide as succinctly and as tellingly as a pristine performance within a perfect story told by an incomparable storyteller. In the twenty years since Zegen, I cannot think of a film so passionately yet simply told, so worthy of praise. It is an echo of Cervantes and of Welles, the author and greatest interpreted of the Don Quixote tale, and deserving of rank amongst them as great filmic literature.
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