Thursday, May 14, 2015

Japan Speaks Out: Kakita Akanishi (The Letter)

It is not so glamorous, but paperwork is a big part of spycraft. Samurai Kakita Akanishi is hardly any James Bond, but he can handle some serious missives. There is plenty of jidaigeki intrigue, but also love of the unlikely and unexpected sort in Mansaku Itami’s Kakita Akanishi (The Letter), which screens as part of Japan Speaks Out, MoMA’s current survey of early Japanese talking pictures.

Kakita Akanishi has been dispatched by his lord to infiltrate the Date clan, who are reportedly up to no good. The rumors are true and Akanishi has a dispatch to prove it, but getting it out of the compound to his master will be a tricky proposition. As he and his more traditionally dashing undercover colleague Masujiro Aosohima try to puzzle out their position, life goes on amid the Date household. Much attention is given to Sazanami, the beautiful new maid. Akanishi happened to be the lucky retainer assigned to guide her through her preliminaries. Sending her a sure-to-be mocked love letter would give him an excuse to slink away when the time is right. Again with the paperwork.

KA is essentially a samurai spoof, but if you do not like the tone of the picture, just wait, because it will change. Frankly, the concept of the film’s heroes being two duplicitous spies is a little unusual in and of itself, especially for the 1930s. Yet, the humor is often rather dry and clever, especially compared to the broad, rubber-faced comedies coming out of China these days, like the Lost In franchise. In fact, the surprisingly bloody climax should please genre fans, while the ultimate conclusion is wonderfully graceful and distinctively stylish.

Lead actor Chiezo Kataoka basically does it all in KA, getting laughs as the wart-nosed Akanishi, while simultaneously conveying his salt-of-the-earth everyman decency. Playing a dual role, he also chews the scenery with Kabuki-style relish as the severe Date samurai, Kai Harada. Physically, the two performances are like night and day.

KA is a kitchen sink kind of movie, loaded up with physical humor, cute cat scenes, musical quotes from Chopin, and a bit of aching romanticism. It is easily the loveliest spoof movie ever made. The terrible twosome of Jason Friedberg & Aaron Seltzer should be forced to watch it Clockwork Orange style until they repent their moronic ways. Affectionately recommended for samurai fans, Kakita Akanishi (The Letter) screens again this coming Tuesday (5/19) at MoMA, as part of Japan Speaks Out.