A Fugitive from the Past
Film history is full of holes, but some are filled in more reluctantly than others. Consider, for example, the strange case of Tomu Uchida (1898-1970). In his home country Japan, he is considered a canonized master. In the West, he was mostly a name without any practical meaning, at least until a (still slimmed-down) touring series in the wake of Tokyo FilmEx’s 2004 13-film-retrospective made the rounds for a few years, e.g. to International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2005 and New York’s BAMcinématek in 2008, allowing for the first time the appreciation of a sizable selection from Uchida’s rich and diverse body of work, with emphasis on his fascinating post-war period.
Although Uchida is discussed in standard texts on Japanese cinema—especially his realistic classic Tsuchi (Earth, 1939)—and individual films appear time and again in other contexts (back then he was even in competition in Venice and Berlin), outside of Japan he remained strangely neglected. Strange not the least, because among the few previously available films was Kiko Kaikyo (A Fugitive from the Past, 1965), an epic crime drama that remains unjustly buried in the shadow of more accessible and more easily categorized projects by more recognized masters: Akira Kurosawa's classic Tangoku to jigoku (High and Low, 1963) and the somewhat contemporaneous, modern narratives of Shohei Imamura. A Fugitive from the Past is one of those films—and certainly not the only one in Uchida's work—where it is immediately clear that we are dealing with an exceptional director: a three-hour, black and white, widescreen (a blow-up from 16 mm, extremely intensifying the graininess) masterwork in three movements. The gripping, action-packed first part recounts the escape of the shady Inaki after he is involved in a hold-up with disastrous consequences. The second depicts in a realistic setting how the prostitute with whom Inaki eventually stays (and for whom he leaves behind a wad of money) begins a new life in Tokyo. Until she sees a photograph in a newspaper: the mysterious, unknown man to whom she owes her luck and to whom she has lost her heart. She visits Inaki, who has built himself a nice, new middle-class life under a new name, and her threat of revealing the past leads to a new tragedy. The third part of the film depicts an intense, psychological duel between Inaki and the police.
Uchida designed A Fugitive from the Past with virtuosic, geographical symmetry: the original title is in fact Straits of Hunger. This is where the film begins and comes to an abrupt end, leaving essential aspects of the resolution unspoken. Various stylistic experiments, including the use of negative images and an emphasis on shamanistic elements, intensify the impression of the work's supernatural force, while in the center of the film, a concrete, historical void is left wide open: ten years go by between Inaki's escape in 1947 and the resuming of the action in Tokyo. On top of the film's implicit subject of Japan's immediate post-war history, there lies an explicit subject—Inaki's struggle for survival, concrete and spiritual, and above all: at any price. The film's entire critical/historical dimension only develops through the combination of both levels.
This original compositional form can be understood as the key to Uchida's work: gaps and breaks are for him not only essential, aesthetic tools, they have a biographical correlation as well. In the middle of his filmography there is a nearly one and a half decade gap: after the outbreak of the war in the 1940s, Uchida went to occupied Manchuria, likely because he hoped for better working conditions far from the war-incited rationing at home. Only repatriated in 1953, he directed his first post-war film two years later. We learn in his autobiography (and not only there) almost nothing about the time in between.
These years were the culminating point of a permanent irritation that perhaps explains why Uchida has been so long ignored in the West: he is as hard to categorize politically as aesthetically. He is obviously a virtuosic stylist, yet without a consistent style. It is even more complicated ideologically: born in a well-off family, Uchida apparently grew up with progressive/idealistic tendencies—his pronounced love for all things from the West is expressed not the least in his choice of the pen name Tomu, a translation of his western nickname Tom, which he chose to write in kanji characters meaning “to spit out dreams.”
His pre-war work—surviving only in fragments, which makes an overall judgement difficult in any case—is already full of compromises and ambivalences, demonstrating Uchida's life-long inclination towards stories about society's outsiders, as well as his fascination for Japan's totalitarianism. According to contemporary accounts, Uchida directed left-leaning films as well as apologies for imperialism. To avoid censorship problems, he made the gangster in the silent film Keitsasukan (The Policeman, 1933) a communist, and in Earth—his realistically-detailed portrayal of peasant life in northern Japan—he softened the originally intended critique of capitalism. (As the film survives only in a shortened version, this impression is intensified even more). With Earth, Uchida established himself as one of Japan's three leading directors alongside his friend Ozu and his teacher Mizoguchi. However, the film was not officially appropriated for its simplistic, humanistic message. It should have sufficed to show how the poor live in order to demonstrate the urgent necessity for change, but the government instead used it as a propaganda film to increase food production.
This experience plays into Uchida's post-war work, as do the lost years in China. The comeback film Chiyari Fuji (Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji, 1955) announces not only Uchida's overall turn away from contemporary subjects to historical drama, drawing on the sword-fighting genre that had sunk sharply in popularity since the war, it can also be understood as a question about the purpose and usefulness of classical cinema: which of its former values have remained, which have changed? For a while, the film's tone is pleasant, meandering, and gentle. The violent, tragic ending, however, emphasizes the contradictions which Uchida seems more and more attracted to in his later work. This conflict finds its purest expression in his brilliant samurai film Sake to onna to yari (Sake, Women, and Spears, 1960): in exquisitely composed, detail-rich, color Cinemascope images, it tells the story of a samurai who, after refusing to perform ritualistic suicide in the company of his masters, discovers the joys of a simple, better life with family, food, and drink. The film's subversive gesture gives way at the end with a return to the Bushido Code: the samurai remembers his duties and falls down drunkenly in battle—whether this is bitterly ironic or affirmative is left open.
Another fascinating scene shows how the samurai gets drunk while cheerful, awestruck crowds arrive for his announced harakiri. The parallel with the film audience is unmissable. Uchida had already placed the/his reflection on art at the center in earlier films: a main character of the contemporary chamber drama Tasogare sakaba (Twilight Saloon, 1956) is a painter who gives up his art because it serves war-time propaganda interests. The structure of the extraordinary, historical, studio-shot film Naniwa no koi no monogatari (Chikamatsu's Love in Osaka, 1959) is multi-layered: the distinguished author of the original, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, is introduced as a secondary character who draws inspiration for his play from the events happening in the film—changing the ending because he believes that art must penetrate deeper truths than life. Ambiguously, the film finishes with Chikamatsu’s version—performed in front of him as a bunraku puppet show.
The Mad Fox
The peak of Uchida's work with theatrical means and his close examination of cinematic forms of representation is Koi ya koi nasuna koi (The Mad Fox, 1962), in which he emphasizes artificiality with intoxicating results: this colorful, widescreen historical drama about treachery and love at one point presents its action on revolving stages amidst radiant, Van Gogh-yellow fields and papier-mâché scenery. A female figure is tripled through a twin sister and a lady fox in human form, and the foxes are in turn represented by actors with masks or simply as small, animated flames. The representational modes change in such a bewildering succession that one could understandably overlook the precise structuring principles out of sheer exhilaration. The Mad Fox is the fully accomplished expression of Uchida's notion of art as a continuous process subjected to countless transformations and fractions. The center of the fantastic cabinet of mirrors remains, ironically-enough, hypothetical. Driven mad, the heroes' dreams of fortune collapse in a transcendental moment, just like the stage-constructed house in which he experienced them is brought down by pulling threads. The film's programmatic original title translates roughly as Love, Love, Don't Play with Love—for love is, as the narrator ultimately has to summarize, an impossible object.
Still, the study of Uchida, one of Japanese cinema's most exciting figures, is now finally possible.
Originally written in 2005 for the German newspaper Taz on the occasion of the touring retrospective. The final sentence now strikes me as a bit too optimistic—possibly Uchida’s major films would have to be released in digital home formats to gain more traction in today’s culture, and this still hasn’t happened. Their full aesthetic splendor needs to be experienced on film prints, anyway. At least for some lucky few, there are second chances: MoMA will present an Uchida retrospective in October/November 2016.
Translation: Ted Fendt