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The Giant / Kyojinden, Japan 1938

Posted by keith1942 on January 23, 2018

This film was part of the programme of ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2017. The ‘Valley of Darkness’ was the period in the 1930s when Japan was under militaristic rule. So the films in this programme were examples of liberal and critical cinema. The notes by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström explained

here, he [the director Itami Mansaku] relocated ‘Les Misérables’ to Kyushi and the era of the Satsuma Rebellion. Victor Hugo’s novel was a totemic one for liberal Japanese intellectuals in the early twentieth century, and its anti-authoritarian and humanist sentiments were daring in the age of militarism.”

The ‘Satsuma Rebellion’ was a key event following the ‘Meiji restoration of 1868. This ushers in the period of modernisation in Japan. Wikipedia has a detailed article on the Rebellion:

“The Satsuma Rebellion (西南戦争 Seinan Sensō, “Southwestern War”) was a revolt of disaffected samurai against the new imperial government, nine years into the Meiji Era. Its name comes from Satsuma Domain, which had been influential in the Restoration and became home to unemployed samurai after military reforms rendered their status obsolete. The rebellion lasted from January 29, 1877, until September of that year, when it was decisively crushed and its leader, Saigō Takamori, committed seppuku after being mortally wounded.”

This was a key event in modern Japanese history. Intriguingly three of the films in the Ritrovato programme were set round this event. It would seem that it had particular relevance in a period dominated by the military and in which the military and right-wing grouping constantly referred to the values associated with the Samurai.

The film opens well into the story of the convict protagonist. In a small town we find crowds celebrating, food stalls and brass bands: the occasion is the unveiling of a bust of the Mayor. The Mayor, Onuma (Okochi Denjiro), arrived ‘from somewhere up north’ and has benefited the town. Onuma meets the ‘the new man’ with the police, Sogabe Yajiro (Maruyama Sadao), who feels that ‘we’ve met before’. The celebrations are interrupted by a fire and a man trapped in the flames. A barred window prevents his rescue but Onuma breaks in and carries shim to safety. The rescue causes Sogabe to comment that

“only one man could free him’ in that way.”

We now have one of the several flashback sin the film. Onuma was at one time imprisoned on Toro Island and made to work as forced labour in a mine. His original sentence had extended by attempted escapes to nineteen years. But he tries again, killing a guard in the process, Travelling on the road he is given food and shelter by a priest (Shiome Yo) in a small temple. Sanpei repays his hospitality by stealing a candlestick, but this one is gold rather than silver. Caught and bought back to the Temple by the police, Sanpei is saved when the priest provides his alibi. As Sanpei leaves with two candlesticks the priest essays

“Promise me, starting today, you won’t do anything wrong”.

Sanpei will be true to the promise he gives, we even have the scene where he is guilt-struck after purloining a young boy’s coin.

Years on Sanpei, now Onuma, has become the Mayor and is a wealthy and respected citizen. Sogabe’s investigations lead to Onuma attending a court hearing and clearing a man wrongly suspected of being the escaped convict Sanpei. Another flashback fills out events at this point.

Onuma has also encountered the case of Ofude (Hanbusa Yuriko), hospitalised after losing her job. Despite Onuma’s care she dies. When he flees because of the discovery of his past he goes to succour her daughter Chiyo (Katagiri Hinako), in the ‘care’ of exploitative foster parents. When they move on it is with a doll that he has bought Chiyo.

 

Years later the setting is the Southern Island off Kyushi. Onuma is older and now known as Sankichi. Chiyo is now a young woman, [played by the young Hara Setsuko, a treat for Ozu fans in the audience). Her romantic object is a young English teacher, Ryoma (Sayama Ryo), who provides language lessons, [a reference to the modernization process]. The various other characters from the original have their equivalents, including Okuni (Tsutsumi Masako) as the girl sweet on Ryoma, and Goro (Imaizumi Kei) as the urchin who dies on the barricades. These are part of the rebellion in which all the characters are caught up. Sankichi has to rescue Ryoma, thus enabling the union which he initially opposed. Sogabe continuous his relentless hunt, but finally is struck by Sankichi/Onuma/Sanpei’s humanity. These events take place in canal from which Sankichi and Ryoma emerge to Chiyo’s relief. The film closes on the young couple and Sankichi and Old Seike (Osamu Takizawa), Ryoma’s grandfather. The latter jokes that one should

“’Give your children the dolls they like’.

At which the two men laugh.

It will be clear that the film is fairly faithful to the Hugo novel. The opening, set at the point when Sogabe once more encounters Sanpei/Onuma, is very effective: as are the flashbacks that fill in the story. Where the film replaces French events and places with Japanese these are well chosen. Whilst the Rebellion may speak to 1930s Japan, in terms of the history it is the obvious conflict that is equivalent to the Paris insurrection in the novel.

The cast are good and Okochi Denjiro is splendid as the Japanese version of the immensely strong Jean Valjean. The script does not give Maruyama Sadao’s version of Javert the obsessive drive for what he considers justice, but he does effect the relentless pursuit of the convict.

The film ran for 127 minutes in a 35mm print with English subtitles. So, as with most screen versions, there is considerable compression. But, as will be clear, what many readers remember from the novel is there on screen.

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