“BLOODY SPEAR AT MOUNT FUJI”— A Tragicomic Road Movie

“BLOODY SPEAR AT MOUNT FUJI”

A Tragicomic Road Movie

Amos Lassen

Praised by Japanese film critics, director Tomu Uchida nonetheless remains a little known in the west. His 1955 masterpiece “Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji” is set during the Edo period and is a tragicomic road movie of sorts, following a samurai, his two servants including spear-carrier Genpachi (Chiezô Kataoka) and the various people they meet on their journey, including a policeman in pursuit of a thief, a young child and a woman who is to be sold into prostitution.

The film functions by playing on your expectations and then slowly transforming into a more substantial statement than it first appears to be. It leads off as a lighthearted road movie with an ensemble of diverse characters loosely traveling together— a samurai and his two servants, an orphan boy, a Buddhist pilgrim, an itinerant shamisen (an instrument with three strings) player and her little girl, a morose middle-aged man and his beautiful daughter, a highway policeman and a paranoid fellow hiding a large sum of cash who’s suspected to be a thief on the loose. The first half of the film is really funny and charming, but as we come to learn the secrets that various characters have been hiding hide an air of tragedy.

The central character is Gonpachi, the lancer or spear bearer serving his samurai master Sakawa. Gonpachi seems to be getting over the hill and worn out, but he continues to conduct his duties with utmost earnestness. Even though he’s stricken with a blistered foot, Gonpachi proudly refuses when the other servant Genta offers to carry the spear. On the road, Gonpachi befriends the orphan boy Jiro, who says he wants to be a samurai when he grows up. After Gonpachi explains his duties, Jiro says he’d like to be a lancer. Gonpachi is so touched at the thought of a kid aspiring to his lowly post that he lets Jiro try holding the spear.

Traveling to Edo to take some valuable ceramics to his mother, Sakawa is a kind-hearted samurai who treats Gonpachi and Genta more like his friends than his underlings. Sakawa’s major weakness is that drinking turns him into a madman and servants have been charged with keeping him away from alcohol on the journey.

After Sakawa catches Genta sneaking out for sake, the master takes his servant out for a drink. Genta is alarmed at this, not only because alcohol is off-limits but also because it’s a huge breach of protocol for a samurai to socialize with his servants like equals. Sakawa assures him that he’s not going to drink, he just wants Genta to be able to enjoy his sake without sneaking around. But of course, the pair of them end up getting drunk and Sakawa goes on a tear against some innocent bystanders until Gonpachi comes along to get the situation under control.

Later the travelers’ progress is blocked by a group of aristocrats holding a formal tea ceremony in the middle of the highway. Jiro is suffering from indigestion after eating too many persimmons he bought with money Gonpachi gave him. Gonpachi helps the boy make it to the high weeds by the roadside in time to relieve himself. The fancy tea ceremony downwind is disrupted by the horrible stink.

The story takes a turn for the serious as we learn the back-stories of the characters and for that you will have to see the film. When Sakawa learns that some of their fellow travelers are in dire financial straits, he takes his prized spear to a pawnshop to get the money to help them. But he discovers that the spear, an heirloom supposedly given to his family is actually a worthless replica. Meanwhile, the identity of the thief is revealed, and Gonpachi inadvertently apprehends the escaping criminal at the tip of the counterfeit spear. The local authorities grant Sakawa an award for his bravery in capturing the thief, even though Sakawa protests that Gonpachi should get the credit. The officials contend that a servant acts for his master.

Sakawa shows his resentment that the award is a piece of paper instead of money but has to laugh in resignation over all the layers of falsehood and emptiness. Sakawa heads out for another sake binge accompanied by Genta. When the two drank before, no one objected. But this time a rowdy gang of drunken samurai takes exception to the sight their peer drinking with his servant. When Sakawa stands up to defend Genta’s worth, swords are drawn and there’s a horrible outcome.

The movie has been described as both a scathing political statement and a tribute to Uchida’s friend Sadao Yamanaka, who was killed in combat in Manchuria. Class distinctions could be profoundly unfair during the Edo era, but sometimes they cut both ways. Here a poor but honorable samurai and his faithful servants become increasingly aware of the injustices of the world as the make their way to the capitol. “Bloody Spear” is an excellent film that combines the outrage at injustice with an affectionate needling of the common folks’ foibles..

SPECIAL EDITION COTENTS

High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation

Original uncompressed mono audio

Optional newly translated English subtitles

Brand-new audio commentary by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, recorded exclusively for this release

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Corey Brickley

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic and filmmaker James Oliver

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