Director Tomu Uchida was an esteemed contemporary of Japan’s most internationally well-known directors, Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, and yet his work is barely known in the U.S. Arrow Academy aims to correct that oversight by presenting this remastered Blu-ray of his most famous film.
The film follows a samurai and his entourage as they venture toward Edo (modern-day Tokyo), but rather than focus on swordplay action scenes one might expect from the title, it instead spends time on ancillary commoners they meet along the way, such as a poor orphan boy and shady man who seems to have gained wealth via illicit means. There’s no apparent plot other than the minor goal of the samurai delivering a ceremonial tea bowl to Mount Fuji, making it somewhat difficult to decipher which characters we’re meant to follow. Nothing is as it initially seems, and Uchida resists all opportunities for conventional endings, making the film a delightful puzzle to be pieced together by patient viewers.
Interestingly, Uchida’s primary intent seems to be a destruction of social-class order, as his samurai character enjoys drinking with his entourage as equals, their party and other locals bawdily interrupt a stuffy tea ceremony held by aristocrats, and even the samurai’s spear carrier allows the lowly orphan to briefly carry the honorable spear, which is itself ultimately revealed to be a fake. It’s heady stuff for what could have just been mindless samurai action, and marks the film as a memorable outlier of the genre.
The film’s photography is a delight to watch, with especially superior interplay between shadows and light in the exterior shots. The jazzy score doesn’t always seem to belong, but does its part to establish that this isn’t a typical action film. The picture was scanned and restored from the original film elements by its original studio, Toei Company Ltd. Audio was also sourced from the original elements and is presented in its original uncompressed monaural format.
Bonus features are extensive, but aren’t exclusive to this release. Instead, they seem to have been culled from previous French bonuses related to Uchida’s career. The principal feature is a nearly hour-long examination of Uchida’s career by a French film critic. There’s also a lengthy interview with Uchida’s son Yasuka where he shares his recollections of his father’s career, contrasting their home life with that of typical salarymen where Uchida was completely gone while at work but fully present at home in between films. Bonuses are rounded out by a brief interview with a man who was a publicist at Toei Studios during Uchida’s career, sharing further historical details about the state of the Japanese film industry at that time. The Blu-ray also includes a brand-new audio commentary track recorded by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, as well as newly translated English subtitles.