Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bored Hatamoto - Acrobats of Death (1959)

It's 1690, the period of Japan's Tokugawa Shogunate, and trouble is brewing in Edo. The successful completion of the Yushima shrine calls for celebration, and has even attracted a troupe of Chinese acrobats. During the celebrations, a close advisor of the Shogun is mysteriously assassinated. The magistrate Sakai is very fast in blaming the deed on the secret Christian sect of Edo.

Soon, a series of arsons, robberies, abductions and further murders perpetrated by masked men who leave crosses in the houses they plunder and loudly declare themselves to be Christian crusaders seems to prove the magistrate right. But there is another, more subtle string of murders that does not fit Sakai's theory at all - some of the hidden Christians of Edo are killed in the same ways as the Shogun's advisor, pointing to a conspiracy against the Shogunate itself that uses the Christians as its scapegoat.

Fortunately for the Tokugawa, Saotome Mondonosuke (Utaemon Ichikawa), a direct retainer of the Shogun who has been declared "to stand above the law", takes an interest in the situation, and uses a combination of his skills as a detective, his masterful swordsmanship, and his sympathy with the less fortunate tiers of Japanese society to save the day.

Acrobats of Death is chambara in a style that would very soon start to look quite old-fashioned compared to the wonders and atrocities the genre would reach for in the 60s. This doesn't make it a bad movie, quite the opposite, it's excellent fun when you keep in mind that this provides what samurai films of its style and time were supposed to provide - a rollicking good time for a matinee audience, comparable to a fine Hollywood swashbuckler.

Sure, the film is sometimes a little stiff, a wee bit too melodramatic, Yashushi Sasaki's direction isn't all that inspired, but the plot moves along at an excellent pace and the film has a highly likeable and charismatic hero in Ichikawa's Saotome. The latter shouldn't come as a surprise, since the "Bored Hatamoto" was Ichikawa's signature role, much like Zatoichi would become Shintaro Katsu's or Nemuri Kyoshiro Raizo Ichikawa's (no relation with Utaemon, by the way). Unfortunately, there's not much information about actor/producer Ichikawa or the Bored Hatamoto films to be found online in any language I speak, so I can't even say how many films the series had or what place Acrobats of Death has in it.

While the film's plot is quite obvious, the script has some surprising flourishes one wouldn't necessarily expect. The Chinese acrobats at first look and act like the sort of racist stereotypes that wouldn't be out of place next to Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu, but the film provides a perfectly natural and ironic explanation for this that I can't bring myself to reveal.

Then there's a strangely democratic subtext for a film about a man who stands above the law and defends the Tokugawa Shogunate. The film (and its hero) very firmly believe in the rule of law and in the right of the poor and disenfranchised of a society to be treated fairly. It's not very subtly done, and not unproblematic in its context, but still commendable.

So, Acrobats of Death seems to me invaluable as a look into the chambara before the genre got all mad and weird and bloodthirsty. Even better - it's a fun and clever film.


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