Thursday, August 7, 2014

In short: Case of Umon: One-Eyed Wolf (1959)

aka Umon Torimonocho: Katame no okami

This is one among many movies concerning the adventures of Tokugawa shogunate era constable and master detective Kondo Umon (here played by Ryutaro Otomo). In this particular case, Umon and his annoying comic relief sidekick stumble upon the bodies of half a dozen men hanging from the same tree, which is a curious thing to encounter even in suicide-prone old Japan, so Kondo quickly deduces this is in fact a case of murder. From there, our hero follows leads to a conspiracy to murder the shogun himself. Only one man can save the reign of the cruel tyrant (waitaminute…)!

As expected, this is one of those slightly stiff and often somewhat hokey pieces of jidai geki made in the somewhat conservative style samurai movies were starting to move away from at the end of the 50’s, towards more morally and artistically complex endeavours. So expect rather larger than life melodramatic declamation as main acting style, a rather simple world view, and one-dimensional characters.

That doesn’t mean One-Eyed Wolf isn’t entertaining if you take it for what it is, at least from my historical point in time. It’s the kind of thing that probably was called the Japanese variant of “an entertainment”, perhaps comparable to series hero B-Western, though of course – Japanese studios had their pride and a deep talent pool -  made to a higher visual standard than the adventures of Hopalong Cassidy. This is, after all, a Toei production, and therefore graced with very pretty sets and sound stages of old Edo that just happen to look exactly like the ones I’ve seen in other Toei productions of this type.

If you can cope with the film’s lack of depth – and way too much comic relief, alas – you might just be like me and get to the point where you fall into the natural state of entertainment movies about detectives solving preposterous and needlessly complicated plots can’t help but provide, particularly those that find our detective ending up in one of those typical samurai movie battles of one man cutting through a veritable army of henchmen. Otomo is appropriately heroic, if not very exciting, the rest of the cast is full of faces I know from dozens of other Toei films.

Some of One-Eyed Wolf’s pulpier ideas are pleasantly weird, and director Tadashi Sawashima at the very least keeps things rolling along nicely and dynamically enough. From time to time Sawashima even shows a bit of visual brilliance: the first reveal of the corpses that bring Umon on the case is wonderfully creepy, there are quite a few shots reminding of very atmospheric paintings, and the film’s grand finale is dominated by very unsubtle yet also pretty effective and artful montages of the kind that always make me think “Eisenstein”.

Consequently, Case of Umon: The One-Eyed Wolf won’t be a film to rock anybody’s world, but it’s a nice time nonetheless.

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