Displaying a filmmaking ethic and system that would make even someone as fast-working as prodigious as Rainer Werner Fassbinder seem cautious and slow, Sadao Yamanaka should perhaps be far better known that he currently is in the West. Making twenty two films over his short but highly productive cinema career, Yamanaka can be seen as one of the missing links in great Japanese cinema. His framing, pacing and style share some similarities with his contemporaries and yet, from his surviving work, it is clear that the archives have lost a true, original voice of Japanese film.
This new Masters of Cinema release contains his three surviving films as well as a handful of surviving clips from other films which will be discussed later. The films are an almost perfect summation of the director’s work; all displaying similar themes and ideas that mark Yamanaka out as definitive auteur. They are presented in chronological order, all within the change from silent to sound mediums in Japan. The jump left some countries stumbling around but here it is clear that Yamanaka was one of many to hit the new form running.
The earliest present in the release is Tange Sazen: The Million Ryō Pot (1934). This is a marvellous introduction to the director, presenting all of his visual ticks and thematic gestures. Based on a popular paper strip, Tange Sazen is at once an extremely fun, almost fantastical story of the chaos that ensues when a pot that holds the secret of the location of hidden treasure is hunted for. The style may perhaps recall other Japanese autuers but really the comparisons between Yamanaka and Ozu or even Mizoguchi, fall apart in the context of these three films, especially Tange Sazen. Yamanaka has his own selection of aesthetics that appear more Sternberg-like than anyone else.
The main idea to stem from this collection is the emphasis on objects and their effect on the people around them. Tange Sazen begins this with all of the gradual, building chaos being caused by a simple, almost humours looking pot. The emphasis on the visual of a pot may recall Ozu again but Yamanaka’s perspective is different. Whereas Ozu would allow objects to sneak into the background, putting emphasis on their lack of change contrasted with his character’s gradual, emotional evolution, Yamanaka puts the cause of all of the events he shows squarely at the door of the objects. This is one of the many hints at his leftist tendencies with his Marxist detest of people’s faith in mere things being hinted at in all three films.
This becomes more apparent in the second film of the set, Kōchiyama Sōshun (1935). Though Tange Sazen danced briefly with moments of Sternbergian darkness, Kōchiyama Sōshun is drenched in it. The innocent pot leading to a Hidden Fortress style hunt is replaced with the consequences of the loss of a rare knife. Its basis on a Kabuki play barely shows for it is a piece of elegant naturalism, full of subtle performances and increasing tensions.
Kōchiyama Sōshun is also the earliest known surviving work of Setsuko Hara; Ozu’s favourite actress. She gives a great, skilfully ranged performance in what is a very male dominated film. Though all three films are Jidaigeki’s, this is the one that benefits the most from its setting within the past. This allows Yamanaka to again question politics by showing the sheer absurdity of the ronin lifestyle, especially that of Hara-kiri which the samurai, who has lost the knife, is initially adamant he must commit if not able to replace it. In pre-Kobayashi days, this is indeed a maverick-like take on the hardships of the Japanese underclass.
The final film has already been released by Masters of Cinema though is a welcome rewatch for its sheer poetry. Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) uses objects in a parallel sense rather than by causation. Following the violence of what really translates as gang territory disputes, the story is a powerful drama on what really matters to those who have nothing. This may again draw a number of references to the previous two works though there is no light within Yamanaka’s final film. It is an uncompromising but beautifully realised piece of work where no character gets out completely unscathed.
The release comes with a booklet of essays, a great video piece with Tony Rayns and some surviving excerpts from two of Yamanaka’s other films, also introduced by Rayns. They are preserved thanks to the 9.5mm home cinema format and though short, they show glimpses of the potential to be found in the director’s lost work, especially through a frantic samurai fight which is extremely fast the the era. Overall, this is a very welcome release. It does however also leave a sense mourning behind. Here is a director who has effectively been lost twice. First to dysentery far before his time, then through the loss of the majority of his work afterwards. It is therefore a melancholic release, doused with an unrelenting potential making the loss an immensely sad one while also creating an immense sense of gratitude for being able to see what is left.