The Complete (Exisiting) Films Of Sadao Yamanaka: Review

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC The Complete (Exisiting) Films Of Sadao Yamanaka: Review

In the space of just five years writer/director Sadao Yamanaka made twenty four films. Although he worked primarily in jidaigeki films he easily jumped between genre from slapstick to samurai adventures to chamber dramas. His career was tragically cut short after being drafted into the army and dying in a field hospital in China. Today only three films remain in their full form. The Masters of Cinema line has packaged these three films along with fascinating snippets of scenes from two other films.

The Million Ryo Pot (1935) – The earliest of these films is a light-hearted romp involving all kinds of shenanigans over a valuable pot that shows a map to booty of gold (personally I would prefer a gold booty but each to his own). The residents of a small township fumble over themselves as the the titular pot keeps changing hands between families who sell or steal it not realizing it’s worth. Into the action comes a one-eyed ronin, who certainly fits the mold as an early Yojimbo figure as he takes charge of a young boy and his peasant family who guard the pot. It’s a pleasant film that’s an easy watch but I doubt it would have been remembered as one of Yamanaka’s greats had he lived on. The humour, as with much of 30/40s Japanese cinema very broad. Gurning and arm flailing are in high abandoned.


K ochiyama  S oshun (1936) – Whilst it’s wonderful that this film still exists at all, the original reel used for the transfer was obviously highly damaged. The visual and sound quality are as scracthey as a well worn vinyl of Dark Side of the Moon. A darker film than Ryo Pot. It’s a intimate play-style drama about a samurai’s missing knife. Similar to Kurosawa’s later Stray Dog, it deals with the fall out politically and socially of a weapon. Despite the thin plot thread the pacing is well observed and the film showcases flare for staging and camera direction.


Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) – Now considered Yamanaka’s greatest work, existing or otherwise, Humanity and Paper Balloons was Yamanaka’s final film. Delving darker into the dark side of samurai culture, it’s a far cry from the frothiness of Ryo Pot. The film takes the myth of the mysterious, heroic samurai and brings them down to Earth to show that they are weak and fallible like the rest of us. Opening at the funeral of a ronin who has committed suicide we are introduced to Unno, another masterless Samurai. He is broke and out of work and looking to use his skills in way he can. The film charts his desperate search for purpose in a society where everybody is to concerned with making their own way. Again the film recalls one of Kurosawa’s later works The Lower Depths by showing a cavalcade of societies misfits and down-and-outters who are only trying to survive. The desperate living leads Unno to make a drastic decision which leads to an ending that I found genuinely shocking despite the films age. It’s a shame that the film has not garnered wider recognition in the West as it deserves to be put up there with the early great of Japanese cinema. It demonstrates a slightness of hand not present in Million Ryo Pot, proofing that Yamanaka was a man of great evolving talent and a genre chameleon. Even the two snippets of lost films included in the extras showcase that he was a man who could handle an action scene. Showing out and out brawls between samurai’s and henchmen.

Million Ryo Pot and K ochiyama S oshun are precious gems for lovers of Japanese cinema. Despite not being compulsive viewing the fact they remain in existence is cause for celebration. Humanity and Paper Balloons though is a next level affair. Gripping, often chilling drama it could certainly be considered a template for the later works of Ozu and if that’s not recommendation enough I don’t know what else to say.

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