This week’s review comes via the Masters of Cinema restoration of Bakumatsu taiyô-den (1957), alternately translated as A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era or Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate. A slice-of-life comedy set in a Shinagawa brothel in the waning days of the Shogunate, just before the Meiji Restoration and the complete upheaval of Japan’s feudal society, the film follows Saheiji (Frankie Sakai, best known to western audiences for his turn in the 1980s Shogun series) as an incorrigible drifter who spins his unpayable debt to the Sagami Inn into a series of odd jobs and cons.
After a brief introduction to that earlier period, the film’s opening credits roll over scenes from ‘modern’ Shinagawa in the late 1950s. The narration explains that what was once the first rest stop on the Tōkaidō – the main route between the Shogunate capital Edo (Tokyo) and the Emperor’s seat in Kyoto – remains a red-light entertainment district, but new laws are about to change all that. It’s best not to dwell on whether that’s true – Tokyo and other Japanese cities maintain an unusual relationship with ‘entertainment’ and sex work – because the film purports not to be interested in the 1950s. It wants to carry audiences back to 1862, six years before the fall of the Shogun and the beginning of the Meiji era, when Shinagawa was still a rest stop and the ‘Sagami Hotel’ was the ‘Sagami Inn’. It’s in and around this brothel that most of the action takes place.
I wrote that the film purports to be less interested in contemporary, 1950s Japan than 1860s Japan because Bakumatsu taiyô-den is an allegory through and through. I had read that it was an allegory for the taiyô-zoku or ‘sun tribe’, the carefree youths of post-war 1950s Japan. I had not been expecting it to so blatantly flirt with issues of nationalism and foreign presences; until 1952 Japan was under US occupation and the country remained a strategic location in the Cold War, peppered with US military bases, particularly in Okinawa that remained under occupation until 1972. The film draws parallels to the arrival of foreigners in Japan in the build-up to the Meiji Restoration. The degree to which Japan was a ‘closed country’ until the appearance of an American fleet in Edo Bay is often overstated but it was nevertheless a period of enormous change, and Bakumatsu taiyô-den finds Shinagawa rife with foreign visitors and groups of disaffected samurai plotting attacks on the nearby Foreign Quarter.
It’s remarkable how much of the film’s comedy works for an international audience more than half a century after its release, but I have my suspicions that this is not a particularly accessible film for anyone unfamiliar with Japanese culture. Much of it will work regardless of language and cultural barrier, but moments like Saheiji spinning a false tale of woe punctuated by the wooden clatter of hyōshigi are likely to be lost. I can only guess at some of the references and comedy beats that didn’t land for me.
Eureka! is quick to point out that Bakumatsu taiyô-den was ‘[v]oted one of the top five Japanese films ever made in a critic’s poll by Japan’s leading cinema publication Kinema junpô’ in its back of the box blurb, and that was what drew me to it. I wondered how would it stand up against giants like Kurosawa. At 110 minutes it begins to outstay its welcome and it ends on a truly unusual beat, but it’s well worth delving into despite the caveats above about accessibility. If nothing else, Frankie Sakai’s full-on performance and the delightful score are worth the price of admission.
Bakumatsu taiyô-den / 幕末太陽伝 (Bakumatsu taiyōden)
Director: Yûzô Kawashima
Japanese Release Date: 14th July 1957
Version Watched: 110 min (Eureka! Masters of Cinema)