It takes but a watch of KILLING IN YOSHIWARA, perched as it is on a kind of cinematic cornerstone for Japanese cinema (the modernist approach of Imamura and his cohorts but a few years away, Kurosawa ushering swordplay movies in a new age with YOJIMBO), to seriously wonder why Uchida's name is not with more frequency mentioned next to that of other classicists like Mizoguchi. If not that, then at least to suggest a significant body of intelligent work behind it that would remark Uchida as a director worthy of serious critical appraisal. But, alas. Uchida for the most part was a genre director. And while American genre directors from the same time found powerful allies in the Cahiers group, Japanese genre directors seem condemned to perpetual obscurity.
The story of a wealthy but deformed silk merchant falling in love with a treacherous geisha, at once predictable but gripping, benefits from exactly those qualities that mark it as predictable. Something deceptively naive about it, outdated even, that seems to harken back to the works of Herman Melville, where satisfaction comes out of the affirmation of a particular chain of events. Not unlike Melville's BILLY BUD, it's nothing but the good-natured predisposition of the loveless merchant that brings about his doom. The idea of moral depravity completely alien to his thinking or even a lack of intimate touch caused by his deformity that blinds him to obvious treachery. In the brilliant scene where he, for the first time, realizes he's been duped, the merchant channels the same bafflement and rage with which Billy Bud strikes down Claggart. Except it takes a while for the merchant to strike.
But when he does, it's all guns blazing. I was slightly disappointed with the ending. I'd heard so much about it that I was expecting the same kind of feral intensity that closes SWORD OF DOOM. It's not SWORD OF DOOM (but then again, what is?), but it's still a blistering finale. One that seems to recall the prolonged swordfight that similarly closes Uchida's previous A BLOOD SPEAR FOR MT. FUJI (and to return back to the Melville angle, a movie that, in making the servant cleverer than his drunken samurai master, recalls Melville's BENITO CERENO). Filmed in some of the most bright, garish colours to appear in a 60's movie, KILLING IN YOSHIWARA ought to be more outdated than it is, but instead, owing to Uchida's handling that breathes life in what seems like old fable, we get a gripping drama of betrayal and revenge. 8.5
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