Tale of the Archery at Sanjusangendo

A decent film on its own terms, but so impervious to Naruse’s wiles that it feels slight. The script, by Hideo Oguni (later Kurosawa’s go-to writer), is based on a real historical character who set a record in the 17th century for the most arrows fired in the Toshiya archery competition. Here this personage becomes the neurotic teenager Daihachiro (Sensho Ichikawa) who is nearly incapacitated by anxiety because of the competitive pressure placed on him by his patroness Okinu (Kinuyo Tanaka) and by the memory of his father’s seppuku after failing at the same contest. The charisma vacuum created by these two troubled, troubling characters is filled by the arrival of an extroverted samurai named Karatsu Kanbei (Kazuo Hasegawa), who has mysterious reasons for providing much-needed support to Daihachiro, and whose good-natured swagger makes the film feel like a Yamanaka project for a while, until the dramatic demands of the story drain the film’s humor.

It feels as if Naruse had trouble reconceiving the film as anything other than an eager-to-please genre exercise. The script has some wit and makes an effort to give its characters dimension, though it is front-loaded with naked exposition and more inclined to signal suspense than actually to create suspenseful situations. Certainly the film looks beautiful with its deep-space exterior compositions, especially at the majestic Sanjusangendo temple where the Toshiya is held. And there are a few striking interludes: a lovely Fordian sequence of a harmonious archery practice session under Kanbei’s tutelage, followed by the entourage walking home beneath cherry blossom trees; a daringly protracted, mysterious shot in which Daihachiro slowly strings and shoots an arrow into a nearby target, followed by a shock cut to Okinu’s face reflected in a circular mirror. But these occasional stylistic assertions don’t connect strongly to the film’s emotional throughline. The climactic Toshiya where Daihachiro sets his record of 8133 target hits, filmed with stunning diagonal compositions down the Sanjusangendo gallery, is narrated with schematic cutaways to the reactions of the audience, in a major and unrewarding concession to the film’s genre mission. If the project is less beholden to militarism than expected – with only a few of Kanbei’s more solemn speeches exhorting the audience to put aside group rivalry in favor of national glory – it seems less personal to Naruse than some projects of the period that are more defaced by propaganda.

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