Self-Righteousness Does Not Make a Warrior Righteous: On Orochi

OROCHI (1925) — Buntarō Futagawa

Note: This is the hundred-and-thirty-fourth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1925 film, OROCHI, directed by Buntarō Futagawa.

Silent Japanese cinema is regrettably nowhere near as extant as historians, filmmakers, and film fans would like it to be. But from the work we do still have access to, we can learn a lot about pre-World War II artistic sensibilities and the cinematic language that led into the more famous and celebrated eras of Japanese movies. One of the valuable relics of the time is Buntarō Futagawa’s 1925 jidaigeki film OROCHI.

Jidaigeki are period dramas, usually set in the Edo period (1603–1868). Jidaigeki made up more than half of the output of Japan’s film industry, an unmatched proliferation of a certain genre/setting; this stat comes from film critic and historian Tadao Sato, who points out that the next closest phenomenon may be the westerns during their peak in Hollywood. Still, jidaigeki were clearly in favor from Japan’s full foray into mass film production and distribution circa 1910 through the rest of the silent era.

A sub-category of jidaigeki are, of course, samurai movies, also called chanbara or chambara; as mentioned, and even more specifically, their closest equivalent was the western, especially during the era of Kurosawa. OROCHI is chanbara, an exploration of a rōnin who encounters misfortune after misfortune, even if he did “nothing wrong.” This focus on what is essentially an outlaw (OROCHI was originally titled “Outlaw” but was censored and changed by the filmmakers to what literally translates as “Serpent,” more on that later) marked a considerable shift in the mid-20s away from the style and content of earlier Japanese movies.

As in the West, even as far as the mid-20s, stage and theater actors had more and considerable pull among the intelligentsia; they were more respected and considered true practitioners of the craft. This effect was even more potent in Japan, where kabuki (dance-dramas that were the high art of performance at the time) performers came from family lines of actors and were very rarely outsiders that broke into the biz. Early Japanese movies tried to approximate the kabuki traditions and acting style, with slow, fluid movement and make up in the stage tradition. Futagawa and OROCHI were a big part of transitioning away from this style into a more “realistic” and frenetic filmmaking tradition. But looming even larger in this transition into a different cinematic language was OROCHI’s star, and indeed the biggest star of the era, Tsumasaburō Bandō.

Famously known as Bantsuma, Bandō started his own very short-lived kabuki troupe in 1922, but joined the film industry in 1923. The third figure rounding out this influential trio was Rokuhei Susukita, screenwriter on OROCHI and the preceding film by Bandō and Futagawa, GYAKURYU (1924). Susukita crafted, with OROCHI, a story that ran counter to the growing nationalism and militarism in Japan and was fed by and fed into a growing, yet much more repressed, liberalism.

At least, that’s what I believe was intended. The final product and my reading of OROCHI is in fact progressive, however; the original message of the film just doesn’t align with what I took away from it. First of all, yes, OROCHI was originally called “Outlaw.” Authorities didn’t like it so blatantly celebrating a criminal hero. So Susukita et al. changed the film to “Serpent.” There is still not a clear consensus on why the film is called that. There is no recurring theme of a serpent or anything. There are no mentions of snakes, I don’t believe. But perhaps it’s a commentary on the viciousness and swirling movement of Bandō’s samurai Heizaburo Kuritomi. I decided that it did recall the weaving motion of Heizaburo, but not physically: I think “Serpent” refers to his feigned protestations and moral lapses of judgement.

OROCHI tells the tale of a samurai (Bandō) who constantly runs into situations where the intentions behind his seemingly detestable behavior has been misread by everyone around him. Heizaburo is constantly getting into fights, protecting his own common background, defending the honor of the woman he loves, protesting her turn away from him, falling in unrequited love with the doppelganger of his first love, etc. It’s Heizaburo’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad [year(s)?].

But although the crux of the movie is that Heizaburo is judged by his outward appearance and behaviors, which were ultimately justified, the reality of the situation is that the character is hot-tempered and doesn’t respond to every injustice with quite the amount of just grace that he could impart as a trained samurai. Heizaburo has an anger problem, which probably reaches its peak when he falls in with a gang of thieves and allows them to kidnap the second object of his love for…sinister designs. The man almost rapes her! He doesn’t, but the scene in which Heizaburo struggles with his inner demons is convincing. The character almost committed an unspeakable crime. He is not wholly virtuous.

Ultimately, the initial misjudgments of Heizaburo are truly off-base. But as he continues to feel victimized by the world and more bitter about society’s treatment of him, Heizaburo does become less justified in his responses and attitudes.

However! This whole thread, which is admittedly hammered home over and over, always in favor of Heizaburo, does reach a climax that more convincingly redeems the character and provides more sympathy than anything else earlier in OROCHI. Heizaburo, running from the police, falls in with a respected lord who is nevertheless a huge scumbag. When the lord is abusing a woman and her samurai husband, Heizaburo realizes it’s his first love Namie.

He saves them, and the lord calls in the police. Heizaburo is captured, for good this time; he killed multiple authorities. He is not a good man, OROCHI tells me. But he is not a terrible man, this ending tells me. The filmmakers would have you believe the latter throughout the entire film, but the events of the film are almost entirely the fault of Heizaburo. His final sacrifice is no less potent for this; in fact, it’s almost more compelling than just another in a series of noble yet misunderstood acts, even if it’s the last one.

The final shot of OROCHI is fittingly haunting for Heizaburo’s ultimately ambiguous fate. Silhouetted against the darkly glowing sky, the samurai is marched across a footbridge over water. It’s probably the single most beautiful image in the whole film, but it comes on the heels of a technical and exhilarating action sequence. Heizaburo fights a horde of police, foreshadowing the samurai mayhem to come especially on the heels of World War II. It’s a truly remarkable and frantic display of fight choreography that was probably unmatched for some time to come.

Technically, the rest of the film is admirable as well. The cinematography by Seizō Ishino is sharp and every scene is well-lit, the sets and costumes are convincing and beautiful, and the acting from the whole cast is, of course, elevated and absolutely archetypal and powerful. Another note: Japanese silent movies weren’t so silent. They were often accompanied by live music, as were movies in the west, but the particular art form of benshi, performers who narrate the entire length of a film, gives any modern approximation of the practice a distinct feel. That’s the case with the Digital Meme DVD of OROCHI; the track from Midori Sawato is great.

Full film

Ultimately, OROCHI’s relative dance away from the black-and-white storytelling of kabuki-style theater and movies takes it to a progressive grey area, but an alternative reading takes it even further into the darkness. Heizaburo is a more complicated character than the filmmakers perhaps even intended, and that makes the film all the more compelling. Bantsuma’s protesting performance is full of self-righteousness, and that leads to Heizaburo’s downfall. Intellectually, I’m not quite sure his final sacrifice makes up for his actions. But emotionally, it may as well. That’s the power of OROCHI, brought through with innovative new approaches to cinematic storytelling that Japanese filmmakers would define in their own way.



I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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