Discovering a Japanese Master 

The Films of Tomu Uchida Come to Brooklyn

Even for a film made in 1955, A Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji is ambivalent about its titular icons of Japanese power: the mountain is admired by human traffickers during an outdoor tea ceremony that blocks access to a country thoroughfare (only to be interrupted by bathroom odors and a thundershower), and the spear is wielded only guiltily, by the sore-footed servant of a drunken samurai during the mud-spattered finale.

Bloody Spear was the first film made by the Japanese director Tomu Uchida following a wilderness decade-plus with the Manchuria Film Corporation; Uchida’s version of his country’s scared-straight experience with extreme nationalism climaxed (but didn’t end) when the Corporation’s über-militaristic head died in his arms, having ingested poison when Manchuria fell to the Russians. (Craig Watts, writing on Bloody Spear for Bright Lights Film Journal, offers a deeply researched and analyzed Uchida bio.) BAM’s Uchida retrospective, his first American exposure following a 2004 Tokyo series that’s since traveled to Rotterdam, Toronto and London, pulls all but one of its ten films from the ten years following Uchida’s homecoming. (Cop-and-robber silent Policeman is in; 1939’s poetic farming epic Earth, the highly regarded capper to his career’s first half, and among the few surviving early works, is out, as is the Miyamoto Musashi samurai series with which Uchida kept occupied until his 1971 death.) The Outsiders, “an epic outdoor adventure in which an embittered Ken Takakura fights for the rights of Hokkaido’s oppressed Ainu population”, per Midnight Eye’s Jasper Sharp, is included, articulating the marginal sympathy evident in the slapsticky Bloody Spear’s humanist take on the lower-caste ladies and gentlemen of the road — and in Yoshiwara: The Pleasure Quarter, in which a disfigured businessman is exploited by an ex-con courtesan burning to upend her brothel’s hierarchy. Even Fugitive from the Past feels less dogged than hounded in its pursuit of a buried crime, concerned primarily with the crushing weight of a checkered history.

A three-hour manhunter spanning ten postwar years, Fugitive’s somewhat deadened by a blocky temporal structure. (It’s been compared to Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine, which gets the accumulating chronology exactly right, the better to push its anti-thriller agenda.) But, shooting in widescreen 16mm blown up to a surveillance dossier-grainy 35mm, Uchida’s compositions are electric: physical configurations clarify psychological stakes, and close-ups pack a Fulleresque punch. Dynamic, too, are the teeming Bloody Spear and Yoshiwara, which offer a carnivalesque take on period-clothed social critique, fey-seeming to audiences accustomed to Kurosawa et al’s muscular, Westernized samurai revisions. Uchida will open a scene on an eye-catching detail and pull back to reframe it within a larger spectacle. (Or he’ll simply be diverted by a fireworks display or performance; Yoshiwara’s climactic fight sequence is short-circuited amid a shower of cherry blossoms.) There’s always movement in his frame, hustle-bustle coordinated across multiple planes throughout the depth of field.
And yeah, “that guy sure knew how to block a scene” sounds like auteurists slurping through the ice cubes at the bottom of world cinema — but the discovery of a fluid, consummately cinematic style in a genre journeyman from the middle echelons of his national film industry is cinephilia’s purest rush. Amplified, too, by one-night-only availability: we’re hungry to know more than lagging DVD archive-dredging allows — and, given Uchida’s lost films and lost years, maybe more than we can.

April 11-30 at BAM


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