MoMA pays tribute to unsung Japanese master Tomu Uchida

ScreenerBlog

From October 21 to November 7 the Museum of Modern Art celebrates Tomu Uchida, one of the unsung masters of Japanese cinema. Tomu Uchida: A Retrospective includes nineteen of his films representing four decades of his career.

Little known in the United States, Uchida was an accomplished director whose work ranks with the best in Japanese cinema. Born in 1898, he held a number of factory and construction jobs before starting out as a prop man in silent films. Working his way through the studio system, he directed his debut film, Blood of Justice, in 1925. Living Doll in 1929 established his reputation as a left-leaning director concerned about social issues. In Police Officer (1933, screening October 26) Uchida enlivens the gangster drama with quick cuts and violent plot twists.

Based on a story by Yasujiro Ozu, Unending Advance (1937, October 22, November 6) is a low-key drama reminiscent of Frank Borzage's Little Man, What Now?. Nonomiya has been working at the same firm for 24 years. After a shareholder meeting, a director announces that "we will implement an age-limit system while holding back our tears," in effect forcing Nonomiya to "retire." The meeting ends with the warning for ex-workers to "depart graciously."

Uchida finds plenty to criticize in a system that chews up workers. Workers gossip quietly about who will be fired first. Rising prices threaten everyone. Nonomiya and his wife huddle over their finances at night, whispering about whether they can afford their daughter Toshiko's wedding, or school for their son Ryosuke.

But in Unending Advance Uchida was after something more. In a sequence that was later recut by the studio, Nonomiya dreams about a new life, one in which a promotion lets him buy a camera for his son, piano lessons for his daughter, to take his children hiking, to give advice to workers who treat him with new respect.

Uchida films the hiking sequence with gliding traveling shots that evoke Hiromi Shimizu. In a single elaborate take he tracks backward through Nonomiya's house, pausing while Toshiko sings at the piano before centering on her newly happy father sharing drinks with friends. But Uchida doesn't dwell on technique. He's more interested in the culture clash between Western ideals and Japanese traditions, between kids playing baseball and daughters working at department store counters with a neighbor who practices Buddhism, grows his own vegetables, and jokingly refers to himself as a "bum."

The realist drama Earth (1939, October 24, November 5), filmed secretly during other projects, was Uchida's most famous pre-war film. Like his peers, Uchida participated in the war effort by contributing to Japanese propaganda. In 1945 he went to Manchuria to work with a new film group, not returning to Japan until 1954.

That ten-year gap in his career has led to speculation about how much Uchida helped the Japanese regime, and his dealings with the Communists during post-WWII upheavals. For whatever reason, he didn't return to Japan until 1954, when the movie industry there was booming.

Just as Westerns dominated the US market at that time, period dramas with their samurai warriors and aristocratic rulers filled Japanese screens. Uchida's Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (1955, October 22, November 3) jumped feet-first into the genre. Made with the help of Ozu, Shimizu and samurai innovator Daisuke Ito, Bloody Spear also shows the influence of Hollywood directors like John Ford.

In Bloody Spear, diverse strangers encounter life in a journey that binds them together. A disillusioned samurai (also a problem drinker), a father forced to sell his daughter into prostitution, an ironic musician with her young daughter, a thief in disguise, an undercover cop and assorted peddlers, urchins, innkeepers and maids all contribute to the lively, lighthearted narrative.

Warm and appealing, Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji is a road movie that twists and turns with its endearingly lifelike characters. Uchida's impressive grasp of filmmaking recalls silent film tropes, cites movies like Stagecoach and Shane, often evokes the precise, geometric set design used by Fritz Lang, and at other moments dips into slapstick comedy. The director toys with genre expectations before delivering a startlingly violent climax.

Chiezo Kataoka, who plays a heroic servant in Bloody Spear, returns in Killing in Yoshiwara (1960, October 21, November 5) as a mill owner searching for a wife. Adopted as an infant, Jiro has a disfiguring birthmark that has left him alone despite his success in business. Scorned even by geishas, Jiro tries to find happiness with a servant.

Based on a kabuki play, Killing in Yoshiwara is a cool, impeccably shot movie whose widescreen frames bristle with energy. Uchida almost throws away extravagant visual details. An opening credit shot drifts through Jiro's factory much like Sergio Leone would later examine a laundry in Once Upon a Time in the West. A dancing troupe and orchestra performing on a barge float languidly behind two other rented barges whose clients are taking part in carefully arranged blind date — a series of horizontal squares sliding back and forth across the screen.

Despite flourishes like these, Killing in Yoshiwara has the focus and intensity of a timeless tragedy. The director zeroes in on Jiro, eliminating one by one each chance at happiness.

Uchida tackles discrimination against the indigenous Ainu in The Outsiders (1958, October 22, November 4), set on the island of Hokkaido. Structured like a Western, the story opens with a lone horsemen galloping across a field, both a vision of the past and a nod to cinematic influences. Only gradually does Uchida reveal that his story is taking place in the present.

Ichitaro Kazamori, nicknamed Phoenix by the Ainu, sees himself as a sort of Robin Hood to his people. He flits in and out of villages, bringing presents for Ainu children and bombing fisheries that won't hire Ainu workers.

Saeki, an artist from Tokyo, becomes intrigued by Ainu culture. Studying their traditions for her work, she is drawn into a deadly feud. Her research uncovers illicit affairs, hidden ties and layers of deceit that have slowly stripped the Ainu of their money and land. The more Saeki involves herself with the Ainu, the greater danger she faces.

Uchida presents the story, adapted from a novel, in a straightforward manner, refusing to choose one side over the other. His characters obsess over blood lines, honor and traditions that date back centuries. It won't take long for viewers to realize that the figures here are trapped in a system that has reduced them to outdated stereotypes. Modern society will wipe out the Ainu just as it did Native Americans in our country, despite the efforts of academics to preserve their cultures.

The director relishes the Hokkaido settings, their desolate mountains, lonely coves and endless swamps echoing the story's emotional turmoil. Just as in Unending Advance some twenty years earlier, the characters in The Outsiders are fighting meaningless battles when life has already passed them by. Saeki criticizes Ichitaro's "cheap heroics," warning "that kind of resistance won't be effective." Ichitaro argues that society is "skin deep," and tells Saeki that "You hate the primitive in me."

Which side is Uchida on? One character argues that "It's the Ainu's fate to vanish," while another says, "We could have seen each other if we wanted to."

The retrospective will be showing Uchida's grim masterpiece Straits of Hunger (1964) on October 23 and November 6. A three-hour thriller about a criminal who tries to fit into society, the story unfolds over a decade and crosses the whole of Japan.

All of the titles in the series will be screening in 35mm, Unending Advance in a new edit that employs revised subtitles pieced together by Uchida's family after his death. The series includes the stark drama A Hole of My Own Making (1955, October 25, November 2) and the international premiere of the rare Dotanba (1957, October 24, November 5), a thriller about trapped miners. Also noteworthy is The Mad Fox (1962, October 27, 30), with its stylized sets, kabuki-inspired staging and delirious plot — based on a puppet play — about a grieving widower and a shape-shifting femme fatale.

Uchida's movies were made on a high level of expertise, with intricate imagery and vivid editing. But the point of his work is not its surface technique. It's his empathy with his characters, his understanding of how Japanese society works, his criticism of a culture that holds its people back.

As curator La Frances Hui puts it, "What unifies Uchida's diverse repertoire is his sense of social issues."

Uchida's sense of social justice manifests itself in surprising ways — through office romances, bungling servants, drunken confessions, irrational feuds. Some critics accuse him of nihilism, but his belief in a better world is evident even in his darkest movies. This series is an excellent opportunity to discover a cinematic world and artistic sensibility that should be better known.