When Western cinephiles cast their eye down Kinema Junpō’s top 100 Japanese films of the 20th century, they may be surprised to find themselves unfamiliar with the film placed at number five. The hundred-or-so critics polled for the list selected Yûzô Kawashima’s 1957 comedy Bakumatsu Taiyô-den (The Sun Legend in the Last Days of the Shogunate) in amongst the works of the more recognisable names Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa and Mikio Naruse. Despite being largely unknown outside its own country, the film remains highly-regarded internationally and is beautifully rendered on a new Masters of Cinema Blu-ray.
Saheiji (comedian Frankie Sakai), or ‘the Grifter’ as he is affectionately known, arrives for an evening at one of hundreds of brothels in Tokyo’s Shinagawa district. Having treated friends to a riotous evening, he ushers them out and reveals that he has not the funds to foot the bill. As such, he is set to work by the owners and becomes an indispensable member of staff, bringing him into contact with various levels of Japanese society. These range from the outright comical – rival prostitutes, lovestruck customers – to the more political, such as a group of nationalist samurai opposed to a newly constructed Western district.
All the while Saheiji grafts away providing a wealth of different services to prostitutes and patrons, whilst mixing himself medicine for a lingering cough. Bakumatsu Taiyô-den is a deftly constructed balance of farcical situational comedy with the more serious circumstances in which the inhabitants of Shinagawa, and their country as a whole, found themselves. Underpinning every comical moment is serious context. When a samurai swallows explosives to avoid their detection it may be hilarious but it also carries weight through the understood target.
Sakai is wonderful as the central character who slowly becomes an integral part of brothel life, getting its staff out of several scrapes with a cheeky chuckle and quick wit. He’s more than ably supported by the menagerie of brothel regulars including Sachiko Hidari, Yôko Minamida, Izumi Ashikama and Yûjirô Ishihara. If there’s one criticism of Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyô-den, it might be that its desultory opening makes it difficult to grasp quite whose story the audience is follow with the focus shifting from samurai, to rowdy punters, to an intemperate maid.