Masahiro Shinoda’s Buraikan (also called “Outlaws” or “The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan”) is a ravishingly stylish period piece that pulsates with the sounds of both hip American jazz and traditional Japanese music and has as it’s main merit a deliciously mischievous humor. This deliberately light and breezy tone is an unusual choice, considering the film is set during the “Tenpo Reforms” period of Japanese history, a time of prudish social reforms initiated by Lord Mizuno Tadakuni, with restrictive laws on the common men slowly fueling a seething rebellion inside the neighborhood that’s the center of the movie’s attention. The tension between the bold and comically theatrical style and the events within the movie, which could just as easily have been treated with more gravitas affects the movie in both positive and negative ways; for starters, the movie is never boring. Equally, there are a few instances, especially those near the end which could have been more satisfying by a more focused intensity and this somewhat mars the overall impact.
The movie revolves around three major characters, all living in or around the Yoshiwara red light district of Edo. The first is an infamous Buraikan (outlaw) named Kochiyama (Tetsuro Tamba) whose day job is to serve tea to Lord Mizuni himself, but who secretly encourages actors, prostitutes and other people of the lower classes (unsurprisingly, the ones most badly hit by the policies of the Lord) to rebel against the government. Kochiyama is very much like the “lone wolf” characters that populate many samurai films, with shades of black, white, gray and everything in between, yet his character is unique in that he doesn’t feel the need to be laconic or to keep his thoughts to himself, instead offering political opinions freely and punctuating them with a smug laughter.
The second major character is a jobless wannabe actor named Naojiro, played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai, who whiles away his free time telling passers-by their fortunes – it even works once as a pick up line, with a geisha named Michitose played by the sublimely beautiful Shima Iwashita – and the rest of time trying to escape from the domineering clutches of his mother. This minor thread involving Naojiro’s mother is an interesting one for a couple of reasons. For one, it fits in with the general theme of the film, that of ordinary people being forced to suppress their natural instincts, desires and talents by more powerful influences. The film traces a rather unconventional (to say the least) course for this relationship that is as outrageous as it is comic, with Michotose further complicating matters as the third point in the triangle. Secondly, the film is scripted by Shuji Terayama, himself a lesser-known but brilliant avant-garde director whose autobiographical Pastoral: To Die in the Country also depicts a very similar tumultuous relationship between a teenage boy yearning to escape from an overtly possessive mother.
A third crucial character is that of another poor and ordinary person named Ushimatsu, who comes back home after an year to a dead wife, a lost son and a landlord trying to leech more money off him. Ushimatsu’s is the only thread treated with the necessary solemnity, especially his hapless search for his son and his increasingly suicidal tendencies. Another fellow, as interesting as the rest of the lot, but about whom strangely very little is said is that of a deadly and supremely skilled swordsman (after all, what’s a Japanese period film without one?) who carries a pale, sickly expression throughout (when he’s not hiding it under a “Mask of Death”) to go with his nihilism and amorality. His terrifying transformation during the film’s climax is visually one of the more memorable moments in the film.
Like with many films of the Japanese New Wave (Shinoda, along with Imamura, Oshima, Yoshida and a few others was one of the prominent auteurs of the movement), the concerns of the film are very contemporary, in spite of the period setting. A lot of the watershed releases of the New Wave focused on young people and people from the lower strata of society, and Buraikan depicts similar people caught in a regressive political environment, even though in a different period. Shinoda however does not have any delusions about their rebellion. Beneath the playful exterior, Shinoda conveys a pointed pessimism about these lives, and cannot help but accentuate the futility of their revolt, however righteous and fierce. (Indeed, the Lord Mizuni is seen saying near the end “Power can only be replaced by a different power”). The finale is defiantly theatrical, beautifully rendered and has a strange poignancy, especially as we see the revolutionaries hurl fireworks into the sky, to symbolize their (hoped) victory over the government. Ironically, the fireworks better resemble their own lives, burning with a bright and glorious intensity for a fleeting moment, before disappearing into the night sky.