Centering around an 1862 Shinagawa brothel, Kawashima’s film reminds immediately of one-location madcap comedy, with the opening to 1964’s A Shot In The Dark proving a particularly vivid comparison. The first expository reel where Kawashima puts all the plates spinning is breathtakingly relentless. Doing comedy right so it’s funny enough but doesn’t lose steam is as difficult as it gets. The best comedy, in my mind, injects the whole world and how that world functions with a sense of the askew, after which basically anything can happen, even when on face value what is seen appears “normal”. The comedy then arises spontaneously as the characters interact with the world, the narrative sometimes ebbing towards drama, sometimes flowing towards bursts of comedy.
A familiar tribe of characters – two warring prostitutes, a ‘grifter’ who cannot pay for his stay, the owners, a young cook and a band of revolutionary samurai – rotate around the upstairs, downstairs and outside of the house, as all manner of tomfoolery ensues and the score lurches somewhere in search of Benny Hill. Bakumatsu is, as the above may sound, a surprisingly broad experience, singularly unafraid to include endless slapstick, or one-off scenes of stand-alone jokes. It is a remarkably fun film, given the Shogun-setting. Of course it helps how cunningly Kawashima connects all this to then-modern times. The narrator towards the beginning says the film is not about modern Shinagawa and the changes to prostitution, then proceeding to tell us what we need to know about the period (it’s set in the second year of the Bunkyu Era, in 1862, six years before the fall of the Shogun) but then keeps reminding us of the parallels constantly.
There’s a very interesting remark made by Fujimoto Giichi concerning Kawashima’s working methods, quoted by Frederick Veith in the essay “Bakumatsu taiyô-den”: “First he would visualize everyone’s movements in the film by drawing lines on a plan of the set. Only then did he think about their characters and situation. But it was more important to him to determine what kind of places people were moving in and out of, rather than what they actually did in them.” I think you can see this in the film, and it’s very enjoyable. I’ve now seen this twice, spending some time with this notion the second time. The lively ensemble cast are an absolute joy, with the perennially cheerful Frankie Sakai coming close to stealing every scene he appears in and only prevented from doing so by the cheerful vitality of his fellow performers; even the bit parts have been cast with care and given amusing bits of business to ensure that they register.
Want to know the worst part about this film? Nobody knows about it. Not even our resident classic film reviewer Deck has breathed a word of this film and he knows about all the obscure Japanese films. All of which begs the obvious question: how on earth has such a technically accomplished, critically lauded and richly enjoyable film managed to remain almost unseen outside of its home country for a seemingly impossible fifty-six years? As contextualised by Frederick Veith, also in the accompanying booklet, these notions are almost certainly a reflection of the films which influenced Bakumatsu, and of the reaction generated by those very films. In newly post-war Japan, the upcoming young generation were seen as a great hope but also as a potential threat to traditional values. Veith’s piece, which takes in all of this and more, is an essential accompaniment to what, at times, can seem be a deceptively light-hearted experience.