Skull has so many points of interest that it is worth a look even for people who don’t much like silent movies. It is first of all a silent jidai-geki, very few of which survived the war and Occupation years, so we get some idea of how the Japanese approached their own history in the twenties. It is, as far as I can find, the earliest surviving film starring Utaemon Ichikawa, so we can see him in his physical prime, which is impressive. It deals with the fate of Christians in Tokugawa Japan, a subject rarely dealt with. Its heroine is the servant mother of the Samurai’s illegitimate son, a relationship rarely stated so baldly in post-war films. Ichikawa’s final sword fight has an unusual level of reality and intensity that we will not see again until the wide-screen sixties. Even so, despite those points of interest, it is an awkward film that is utterly dependent on its benshi for any real coherence.
In fact, without the benshi, we would never know that Christianity is involved in any way. There is no priest in the town. When Ichikawa rides off to war with his samurai, there is no praying. No crosses are seen anywhere. When Ichikawa loses his great battle, he and the survivors simply return home, with no pursuit from Tokugawa for fifteen years or more (the boy has grown up by the end). While suffering from advanced TB, Ichikawa goes to a temple to meditate and rest in hopes of a cure, and it is definitely not a Christian temple, and the priest in charge of it wears Shinto or Buddhist robes. While facing death, there is no mention of a hope of heaven. It is as if no one making the movie had ever seen or met a Catholic or bothered to do any research. After a while, we begin to wonder if the benshi is just making all this Christian stuff up. In the years after Sekigahara, the Tokugawas were mopping up opposition and gradually suppressing the daimyos who might still challenge them, and everything we see here would be just as valid if Ichikawa’s clan was one that resisted the Tokugawas for decades without any Christian motivation.
Running at less than 50 minutes, we might assume that scenes are missing. Yet all of the plot steps are present, so this may in fact be the original version. One thing missing, however, is something no American movie of the time could have resisted. When the heroine hears rumors that Ichikawa plans to marry a noble lady, she goes mad with jealousy and sets fire to the Lady’s mansion. But we never see the fire, even in the distance, only people running to and fro. Nor do we see her carrying the torch or lamp into the mansion grounds. We just have to take it for granted from her feverish nervousness (and the benshi) that she did set the fire. This is probably a budgetary issue, for the battle scenes are somewhat skimpy as well, with a lot of smoke and fireworks substituting for armies, but no American movie maker has ever been able to resist a chance for a good fire, if possible with an explosion or two thrown in for good measure, no matter how small the budget.*
The fight scene is quite strong, and though Ichikawa dispatches his multiple attackers one by one, negating the reason for a gang to attack, each individual fight is different and plausible. There is no swift slashing followed by six opponents falling down dead. Ichikawa is gradually defeated by his own exhaustion, both from the fight and his illness, and his physical acting is quite impressive.
There are no credits, so we are dependent on the benshi even for Ichikawa’s identification. I have generally admired the benshi tracks in the Talking Silents series, to which this belongs, but this is the first one I’ve seen where it became clear how powerful the benshi was. The benshi did far more than explain the subtitles for the non-readers in the audience. She (in this case) could make a completely different movie than the one distributed if so desired. This power is doubled for a modern American viewer, because we can’t turn off the sound and just read the inter-titles as we could do with an American silent.
(I have no idea what the title has to do with the movie.)
* Now that the topic arises, fires have been pretty rare in the movies I have already posted about. Given the traditional Japanese housing construction, we might think of fires as a common feature, but perhaps because of that same traditional structure the risk of losing control of the fire kept it off the table for most movie-makers.