Friday, May 23, 2014

Kaizoku bahansen (1960)

aka The Pirates

During the Warring States period in Japan. Komen, the son of an influential merchant learns that little of what he thought about his background is actually true when a group of bahansen – far traders and pirates - comes to his home port to take him to become one of their leaders. Komen’s father isn’t his father but a man who assisted the evil Uemondayu in the assassination of his actual father (and mother, but nobody seems to care much about her death) and got a case of conscience afterwards, taking Komen – and quite a bit of treasure too – away from any danger Uemondayu might have posed to the child. Komen’s true father was a captain of the Bahansen, building their once honourable reputation that has been besmirched by many an act of evil and piracy committed by Uemondayu since.

That very same night, our hero’s fake father dies, his sister is separated from Komen – to be soon captured by Uemondayu and his slave-trading men – and the bahansen abduct him. It’ll take quite a bit of whining and acting like a conceited prick for the young man to take on the job of bahansen captain, and even then it’ll take more time until he stops being insufferable, and takes on the traditional job of vengeance and sister-saving.

And there you already have the main problem of Tadashi Sawashima’s Japanese pirate movie, that its hero is an insufferable brat for the first half of its running time, with little recommending him to the role of hero, and much that caused me to want his ass kicked by someone. Because this is not exactly a deep movie, his turn to responsibility, filial duty and a sense of justice isn’t convincing at all, with little explanation given for his emotional change (I suspect the musical number), and few signs of any actual character development going on. But then, at least he stops being completely insufferable, so I’m not going to complain too loudly.

The film’s character work is a bit problematic elsewhere too. Everyone on screen seems desperately in need of some pill or the other to calm them down, what with everybody prone to shouting, screeching, chest-pounding and intense emotional outbursts for no good reason whatsoever; even a bit of rain causes our characters to roll around on a ship’s deck in ecstasy. I’m loathe to imagine what they do when it snows.

Fortunately, I don’t really go into my movies of naval adventure looking for complex characterisation, so it was not all that difficult for me to roll with these aspects of Kaizoku bahansen – with only Komen’s high insufferability actually needing an effort to overlook – and put my eye on the more important things when it comes to the movie life on sea. Namely, scenes of swashbuckling derring-do, exciting miniature ship duels, icky romance, rousing musical numbers (no, wait…), and all kinds of lovely adventure movie stuff. Turns out Japanese pirates (or non-pirates? half-pirates?) like to do all the stuff Errol Flynn enjoyed too, just with different costumes, prettier swords, and a few cultural differences that really don’t change all that much about the resulting film. And while Sawashima isn’t exactly Michael Curtiz on the open seas, he has a fine sense for all that makes this sort of thing exciting, and never lets the film descent into dullness, even at the early days of the plot when all of Komen’s complaining could have brought the whole film down. Plus, how often does one have the opportunity to watch a film with a sequence where a bunch of Japanese people wearing deep blackface pretend to be some sort of “natives” and attack our heroes? Okay, that sort of thing might turn off the sensitive, but for me, that particular sequence of scenes is much too bizarre to be offensive, and much too weird to be boring.

All in all, Kaizoku bahansen turns out to be fun little movie that would be worth watching even without the added bonus of it being a Japanese pirate movie.

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