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Needs understanding of Japanese history for full enjoyment
I was generous in my rating based upon the film's unusual perspective on its historic period. This film needs a good understanding of Japanese history to be fully enjoyed. Adding to the challenge is the very poor quality of English subtitles in the Region 3 Malaysian DVD release, the only one available to anyone not understanding Japanese. Whenever I watch the film I feel like going into it and editing the bad subs. Some examples: 1. For a film based in Japan's Bakumatsu Period (1853-1867) when armed forces of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Emperor fought each other for supremacy, the subs commit the most egregious crime. The subs mix up "ue-sama" meaning "shogun" with "emperor". This is the equivalent of filming the American Civil War and mixing up "Union" and "Confederate" in the subs. Hence the viewer is very confused in a political situation already hazy to non-Japanese people. 2. The subs mis-translate the word "yojimbo" as "warrior" when the word actually means "bodyguard", the lowlier occupation resorted to by poor samurai like the diligent but unemployed protagonist Bessho Hikoshiro. 3.Like too many Malaysian versions of Japanese films, the English sub sentences have some poorly selected key words that if adjusted would add greatly to the understanding and appreciation of the film. Good subs are a cinematic art deserving more recognition. If you watch the film several times, you can choose a new word for the poorly chosen word. But how many people watch this kind of film more than once? 4.OMISSION The buckwheat seller's (Teruyuki Kagawa) chanting at the passing of the samurai era goes completely "un-subbed" so we are left guessing as to whether he summed up the film's theme in a few important sentences. I had to guess based on the pail of water tossed over the bridge railing and the tired old nag that Bessho Hikoshiro was riding upon. 5.A last indictment of the English subs is that these could not handle the subtleties of Japanese interpersonal communication. Japanese hate to say "no". English being more definitive, the subs confuse "yes" and "no" resulting in illogical confusion over critical situations in the film.
Features of the Bakumatsu Period included massive economic instability, unemployment, natural disasters, infectious disease and famine - all of which the comically satirical film depicts. Many said these were demonstrations of the displeasure of the gods and pilgrimages to notable shrines like Ise increased. Historians say "What changed in the 1860s was the intensity and the random quality of the pilgrims, whose behavior verged on the hysterical." So long and strictly had the Tokugawas ruled Japan that many believed in MILLENIARISM, a sense that their world was coming to an end and another world about to be born. There were rumors of supernatural occurrences.
Historical references in the film include the Battle of Ueno on July 4, 1868 where allies of the Shogun (Shiogatai) like the protagonist faced cannon fire and were defeated with some 300 killed. The camera angle is successful at depicting the high ground of the Ueno Hill. A lighter hearted reference in this satirical comedy is the shrine of the gods is at Mukojima, the site of the old 1913 glass-roofed Nikkatsu film studio which could be said to have been a shrine for aspiring actors.
The film source material is a novel by Jiro Asada, a descendant of samurai from the Tokugawa period and author of some other novels made into greater films than this one. Coincidentally, Asada shares a birthday, the 13th of December, with the starring actor. Maybe a good sign for a film subject like this one. I had to look carefully at the final scene to check whether the role is being played by Asada or Satoshi Tsumabuki with heavy make-up. The film has common elements with other Japanese satirical films such as the doting mother and the sword rusty for lack of pious anointment. The starring actor plays three different characters, as in Kabuki tradition. The snowy scene between the death god and the poor samurai contains thoughtful dialog, but you have to watch and decipher the subs.
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