Master Spearman / A Man’s Ambition / Sake to onna to yari (1960)

vlcsnap-2019-10-26-08h14m22s937.jpgThe Japanese title is roughly Wine, Woman, and Spear, which is a far better description of the film than either of its English titles. The spear belongs to Kurando Tomita, a master spearman in the period between 1595 and the battle of Sekigahara in 1600. When not fighting, his great loves are sake and women, particularly a dancer called Umeme.

Within what looks like the story of a larger than life character, there is also a strong critique of the Samurai Code, especially the tradition of seppuku (or harakiri). But it is enmeshed in some specific Japanese history that, while probably well-known to Japanese audiences, is still a bit hard to follow even with the help of subtitles and some historical knowledge. In 1595, as Hideyoshi had all but completed the unification of Japan, he suddenly ordered his appointed heir and nephew to commit suicide, presumably because a son had finally been born. Here, the excuse is the discovery that the heir has been secretly stashing away European rifles for a civil war, while no mention is made of Hideyoshi’s new son. As a result of that, a number of other men associated with the nephew committed suicide voluntarily. Kurando, however, does not. How precisely Kurando was associated with the “plot” is never explained, but eventually his own brother orders him to kill himself for the honor of the Tomita clan.

Kurando posts a public notice that he will do so on such-and-such a date, with the general public invited, and until that date devotes himself to drinking and the eventual seduction of Umeme, who falls in love with him. On the date announced, numerous samurai show up to offer him a final drink in tribute to his honor, so many in fact that he gets drunk and passes out, just long enough for the messenger to arrive forbidding his death. He still tries to go through with it, but now his brother begs him not to, again for the good of the clan. Utterly disgusted, he forswears samurai life and runs away to a cabin in the woods where Umeme follows and they live happily together.

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Ryutaro Otomo in his little cabin

Hideyoshi dies and the brother arrives to demand that, now that he has been released from the direct order, he must kill himself after all or the whole clan will be branded as cowards.  Disgusted by the changeable code, he drives his brother away. All seems happy until the forces begin to mass for Sekigahara and the call of battle overcomes his domestic urges.

While this seems fairly straightforward, there are still a lot of confusions arising in the course of the movie. Not only are there a lot of names to keep up with who may or may not be historical figures, but also there are social relationships that seem to make no sense. If, for example, Kurando’s brother is head of the clan, why doesn’t he commit suicide to clear the family name rather than ordering his brother to do so? Then there are terms of address that in the subtitling leave us very confused at times. Umeme is the second dancer in a troupe led by Chikage Awashima, who has a very protective attitude to Umeme, even staying over on the first night to make sure Kurando stays on his own futon.

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Guarding the maiden’s virginity

Umeme always calls her Mistress and the relationship usually looks like that of a maid and mistress, or pupil and sensei, but a couple of times the subtitles have Awashima call her “sister.” Similarly, when Umeme runs away to live with with Kurando, he tells people he loves his wife, but she always calls him Master. Then to add extra confusion, it is Awashima who commits suicide at the battle site, not Umeme. And what is Awashima’s character doing in all this? Is she protecting a naive young girl or jealous because she loves Kurando or because she has a lesbian love for Umeme?

The director, Tomu Uchida, is much admired among chanbara fans, especially for his versions of the Daibosatsu Pass and Musashi Miyamoto sagas, but for me his real strength was developing strong characters in a historical situation, culminating in his modern-dress Fugitive from the Past.  Here, he seems to have lost control of the cast and of the overall tone. Ryutaro Otomo plays Kurando like he played Sazen Tange or the mountain man in Peacock Castle, with lots of big laughter and back-slapping heartiness, but with none of the depth and disillusionment that the script seems to call for. This all manages to make his sudden reversal at the end not only unexpected but incomprehensible. Awashima is beautiful, as usual, but there seems to have been no attempt to make her anything else or to develop her own motives.

Nevertheless, there is a serious issue at the movie’s heart.  Around 1960, many serious movie-makers began to feel free to question the old codes of honor and sacrifice, even in the chanbara. Kurando’s eventual understanding that the Code was merely a matter of convenience, something that could be reversed at any time to mean the exact opposite of what it had meant only a moment before, is important and significant in the story and in the social climate in which it was made. I know little about Otomo’s career and have only seen him playing variations of this same characterization, so I can’t say if this was a limitation caused by his popular persona or by his own lack of subtlety as an actor. Nevertheless, the broad performance, when added to the confusions of the historical detail, turns a potentially good movie into just a pleasant programmer, but with not enough fighting to satisfy dedicated chanbara fans.

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