The story of Kochiyama about two petty conmen outwitting a rigid ruling class was usually presented on the kabuki stage as two separate plays, Kochiyama and Naozamurai. For the purposes of the film, Sadao Yamanaka selects the first of these bandit plays, retains the basic structure, downgrades characters from their more high-minded kabuki versions and mercilessly parodies left and right.
The result is a film where a samurai retainer loses his token sword - a small knife, itself an opportunity for belittling a symbol - which through a long chain of bartering is eventually sold back to him but as a fake, such are the machinations of a society openly bent on status but secretly powered by deceit; where the poetic gesture of a double suicide is shockingly confounded when one of the two lovers crawls out of the water alive; where the two rascals who spend the film drinking, conning, and blustering, get to be the unlikely heroes who must do the right thing.
So a text rich in irony is reworked in such a way that those original ironies are turned on their heads as well. Where the original heroes showed confidence, here they are unnerved, and their antagonists from the samurai class are rendered pompous but basically harmless buffoons.
Most of the film takes place in the narrow roads of Edo's shantytown, inside a tavern, or the low-class gambling den on the floor above. It is in line with the colorful world Yamanaka presented in the Million Pot Ryo, seamy life on the streets a little out of glory's way.
The only downside, a significant one to my mind; it is incessantly talky and perhaps difficult to follow without some prior knowledge, and features none of the discerning eye for a transitory world Yamanaka exhibited in his earlier film. It is not as fresh or joyously cinematic. It does not imagine visually first, or in ways that really move. The dharma dolls from that film we can also see here lined up in a shelf, but the karmic wheel is not spun. It's purely from a theatric tradition what unfolds, a complex series of ironic resolutions well told.
To see the other, visual side of Japan cultivated for the screen, you will have to follow a different thread.
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