A Fine Madness

The extreme measures of Japanese genre stylist Tomu Uchida
by Mark Asch  posted June 19, 2008
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Tomu Uchida: Discovering a Japanese Master,
BAMcinematek, April 11-30, 2008

Left to dangle suggestively in most biographies of Tomu Uchida is the fact that the Japanese characters selected by the filmmaker for the spelling of his name mean "to spit out dreams." It's a detail worth applying to Uchida's recombinant filmography, wherein a constellation of thematic elements and formal approaches is reconfigured and regurgitated in a series of genre guises. In modes from feudal-era-folktale and bunraku and kabuki theater, to samurai revision, crime story and postwar dramedy, Uchida utilized busy frames and charged formal composition, in tones varying from naturalism to stylization to outright artifice. He was skeptical about social hierarchies and sympathetic toward those on the low end, their marginalization often reaching a boiling point in climactic sequences of violence or amour fou.

For Uchida, this madness can be transformative—not just upsetting social equilibrium but also mutating his storytelling strategies. Two movies from his most productive period, especially, are convenient metaphors for the dreamworks of Uchida's oeuvre. Chikamatsu's Love in Osaka (1959) is based on Chikamatsu's early 18th-century puppet play Courier for Hell, one of several by the author to concern a young courier who steals from his employers to finance his elopement with a prostitute—this one purportedly based on a true story. Here, Chikamatsu becomes a character in the film, observing the action while planning his next play. As the lovers flee, the pivots and forward and backward tracks with which Uchida typically mobilizes his 'Scope frame become more urgent, while the action shifts among their desperate flight, the fantasies it inspires in Chikamatsu, and finally the play that emerges from his fascination with their tragedy. Chikamatsu grants them some dignity in death, an ironic flourish for Uchida's stylized metafiction.

Chikamatsu helps make sense of The Mad Fox (1962), a possible forebear of Seijun Suzuki's non-sequiterrific Princess Raccoon. A story of courtly love and fox spirits that proceeds by blind stylistic leaps, Mad Fox is implicitly a movie about content dictating form, with its hero's disturbed psyche and warped perspective the justification for a cinematic world whose rules change with every plot twist. The backstory, from an 11th-century fable, is narrated during a pan across an illustrated scroll; early scenes of intrigue surrounding an emperor's fortune teller are staged in geometric soundstage tableaux; when the torture and murder of the fortune teller's adopted daughter drives his apprentice insane and into exile, Uchida stages a Butoh-inflected dance solo on a field of yellow flowers, in front of a curtain that drops to reveal a location-shot meadow. Through the apprentice's involvement with his love's twin sister and a shape-shifting fox spirit that takes her form, Uchida moves between outdoors and backlots; the foxes are represented by actors in kabuki masks and (too briefly) by bounding, Disney-esque animations. The final sequence, of story arcs converging and crashing down, is presented as a kabuki play; the cumulative effect is of storytelling modes as vehicles for the subconscious.

Between Chikamatsu and Mad Fox, Uchida made Yoshiwara: The Pleasure Quarter (1960), in which, as in the former, a man's love of a prostitute brings about his financial and personal ruin—here, he's a businessman with a grotesque facial birthmark, manipulated by a prostitute who's herself something of an outcast, a streetwalker-turned-geisha burning to surpass her condescending peers. (The most brutal scenes depict the commodification of women with something of Mizoguchi's cynicism, though the primary focal point is the exploited consumer.) Here, too, Uchida is interested in story-as-spectacle. The businessman's ultimate suicidal rampage is cut short, as the movie ends with protagonist cornered, amid a flurry of cherry blossoms—perhaps prefiguring Kihachi Okamoto's Sword of Doom as an annihilation of narrative to match the zero-sum spectacle of cinematic violence.

We see the outbreak of violence at the end of A Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (1955), as a samurai's spear-carrier avenges his murdered master in a mud-splattered scramble. The messy duel is of a piece with the bustling tone of the movie, a period demystification (with drunken samurai and their sore-footed servants, a supporting cast of scratching-out peasantry and the malevolent upper class, and a well-deployed fart joke) in the vein of Sadao Yamanaka's Humanity and Paper Balloons. The camera is here looser than in the controlled dioramas of Uchida's other period movies, the cinematography in casual black and white rather than the coded colors of the above-mentioned films.

It's tempting to think of Uchida's period and contemporary movies as separate bodies of work, but Bloody Spear scotches that deal. It's perhaps a sense of social relevance in his subject matter (Bloody Spear being a postwar disavowal of the warrior-code ethos) that moves Uchida toward the more intimate frame and lower classes. Take Twilight Saloon (1955), which takes place entirely within a Tokyo bar over the course of a single night and moves to the rhythms of a cast that drops in and out of the lived-in set, talking—often in bluntly on-point bursts of dialogue—about their regret over the war or their (caricatured) nostalgia for it, and about their stagnant lifestyle. A stripper is resigned to displaying herself nightly to make ends meet, while the house singer is given a way out, thanks to a voice well-suited to Western opera tunes.

If the West is an ambivalent presence in Saloon, The Outsiders (1958) is practically a western, opening with rolling hills shot in color-saturated Toeiscope, and its vigilante hero (Ken Takakura) arriving at a village on horseback, a bandit advocate for Hokkaido's indigenous, persecuted Ainu people. The ending of The Outsiders even recalls Shane, as a child calls out to a departing champion whose violent methods are no longer required or desirable. (This follows another rising-action set piece, in which Uchida cuts between a harvest festival dance and a shootout atop a nearby ridge, leaving us with the memorable image of Takakura's scowling face half torn up by buckshot.) Hokkaido, too, is the setting at the outset of A Fugitive From the Past (1965), a supersized manhunt saga. That a thriller plot taking up 10 years of real time and three hours of screen time ultimately hinges on a decade-old fingernail clipping means Fugitive can't help feeling like a letdown, but there's a pulpy charge to the black-and-white widescreen cinematography: shot in 16mm and blown up to a grainy 35mm, and occasionally switching from developed image to negative, Fugitive looks like a tawdry tabloid exposé.

The customary Fulleresque pow! of Uchida's close-ups adds to the effect—in fact, given Uchida's forceful insistence on faces, and fondness for short-paragraph editorializing in his social-issue films, he sometimes seems like Fuller's read-all-about-it Japanese counterpart. Then again, the viewer who's seen Chikamatsu, Yoshiwara, and Mad Fox (as opposed to, say, Bloody Spear, Outsiders, Saloon, and Fugitive) might call Uchida the Japanese Michael Powell, given the fluid correctness of his framing, his vibrant color schemes, and his reflexive tendencies. In fact—as the excitement of his escalating climaxes comes partly from the swifter, more assertive tempo of his camera movements, and partly from his habit of rarely, if ever, cutting between parallel action until his movies approach their endgame—even the first and last reels of Uchida's films are frequently unidentifiable as the work of the same director. (His films are not available on DVD in the U.S., but a box set containing Bloody Spear, Yoshiwara, and Fugitive has been released by Wild Side Video in France, with only French subtitles.)

There is also the matter of Uchida's elusive biography: a vagabonding youth eventually landing in a romantic cinematic career climaxing in the prewar peasant epic Earth (1939); a dalliance with extreme nationalism, leading to his spending the war years and 10 after with the fitfully effective Manchurian Film Corporation; a return to Japan in 1955 and the production of more than 20 films in the last 16 years of his life—the seven discussed here as well as serial and genre clock-punchers inaccessible to Western eyes and by accounts largely uninteresting. Uchida's career is a jumble of high and low concerns, bright spectacle and dark corners, his responsive, protean style answering only to the needs of the moment—the stuff dreams are made of. 


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Courtesy of BAMCinematek
Tomu Uchida's The Mad Fox
Photo Gallery: A Fine Madness


April 11-30, 2008 Tomu Uchida: Discovering a Japanese Master


Mark Asch is the Film Editor at The L Magazine and a contributor to Stop Smiling, Fanzine, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.

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