Tochuken Kumoemon

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Dan Sallitt

Dec 15, 2009, 12:10:44 AM12/15/09
to NaruseRetro,
A really weird movie: there are ways to appreciate it, but I bet it
wasn't much fun for Naruse. It's a biopic, seemingly set around 1900,
of a well-known performer of rokyoku, a Japanese singing/storytelling
form with shamisen accompaniment. The eponymous protagonist
(Ryunosuke Tsukigata) swaggers through the movie with a broad,
conquering smile and conspicuous machismo, and for a while the film
seems like a pro-militarist assignment. (Rokyoku apparently became
associated with militarism, and consequently lost popularity after
World War II.) But the protagonist's appeal is soon undercut so
severely that one wonders if Naruse was not willfully sabotaging the
project. Tochuken's real-life scandals are depicted as a
comprehensive train wreck of his private life, with his wife (Chikako
Hosokawa) driven to her grave by his neglect and infidelity, and his
son (Kaoru Ito) rejected then nearly killed by his father for
insufficient masculinity. The brazen hero-monster proclaims that his
only moral criterion is the improvement of his art, and repeats the
assertion in so many inappropriate contexts that even the most
reactionary audiences were surely forced to reject him.

Undercut or not, Tsukigata is impossible to make interesting, and
Hosogawa's excellent, nuanced performance merely makes the hero look
like more of a bull in a china shop. The film begins on an
artificially heightened dramatic situation - the superstar has gone
missing on the eve of his Tokyo premiere - and labors for intensity
throughout. Forced to tug at the udder of drama from the start,
Naruse doesn't get to show many of his distinctive qualities. Only a
few scenes let in any feeling of everyday life, and the overt drama
allows no room for subterranean narrative developments. My favorite
scene is a rokyoku performance in a small room, with Hosogawa
accompanying Tsukigata with shamisen and odd vocal ejaculations - the
recessive camera observes the detailed performance with a little of
the detached feeling of the wonderful final music scene in FLOWING.
Occasionally a smaller character is handed a nuanced moment, like
Tochuken's usually assertive manager, caught by Naruse's panning
camera in a silent moment of rapture as he is carried away by
Tochuken's performance.
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