Tochuken Kumoemon

It’s hard to imagine that Naruse enjoyed this project much, despite a few interesting aspects. Adapted by Naruse from a novel by Seika Mayama, whose theater version of the CHUSHINGURA story would later become the basis of Mizoguchi’s THE 47 RONIN, TOCHUKEN KUMOEMON is a biopic, set sometime around 1900, of a well-known performer of rokyoku, a Japanese singing/storytelling form with shamisen accompaniment. The eponymous protagonist (silent movie star Ryunosuke Tsukigata) swaggers through the movie with a broad, conquering smile and conspicuous machismo, and for a while the film feels like a pro-militarist assignment. (Rokyoku became associated with militarism, and lost popularity after World War II.[1]) But before long the protagonist’s appeal is undercut too severely for him to serve any propagandistic purpose. Tochuken’s real-life scandals are depicted as a comprehensive train wreck of his private life, with his wife Otsuma (Chikako Hosokawa) driven to her grave by his neglect and infidelity, and his son Sentaro (Kaoru Ito) rejected then nearly killed by his father for insufficient masculinity. The brazen hero-monster proclaims that his only moral criterion is the improvement of his art, and repeats the assertion in so many inappropriate contexts that even the most reactionary audiences were surely forced to look askance upon him.

Undercut or not, Tsukigata is impossible to make interesting, and Hosogawa’s excellent, nuanced performance merely makes the hero look like more of a bull in a china shop. The film begins on an artificially heightened dramatic situation – the superstar has gone missing on the eve of his Tokyo premiere – and labors for intensity throughout, with no room for subterranean narrative developments. Forced to tug continuously at the udder of drama, Naruse doesn’t get to show many of his distinctive qualities. A few scenes let in the texture of everyday life: my favorite is a rokyoku performance in a small room, with Otsuma accompanying Tochuken with shamisen and odd vocal ejaculations, filmed with a contemplative detachment similar to that of the wonderful musical finale of FLOWING. Occasionally a smaller character is handed a pleasing moment, as when Tochuken’s usually outspoken manager (Kamatari Fujiwara) is caught by Naruse’s panning camera in a silent moment of rapture as he is carried away by Tochuken’s singing.

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[1] Yano, Tears of Longing, 36. 39.