Sunday, October 30, 2016

Tomu Uchida at MoMA: Swords in the Moonlight Parts 1, 2 & 3

Daibosatsu Pass is bloodier than the Khyber or Breakheart, thanks largely to the mean-spirited samurai Ryunosuke Tsukue. Years ago, a Buddhist monk tried to sanctify the picturesque mountain rest stop, but it clearly did not take. Instead, it is the sight of a senseless murder that will unleash a convoluted chain of bad karma in Swords in the Moonlight (a.k.a. Souls in the Moonlight) Tomu Uchida’s three-film adaptation of Kaizan Nakazato’s Great Bodhisattva Pass, all of which screen in succession during MoMA’s ongoing retrospective of the major Japanese auteur.

This is indeed the same Tsukue of Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom, but there is clearly more to his story. Part 1 follows roughly the same narrative. It starts with Tsukue killing the pilgrim at the pass out of simple wanton cruelty, but he is survived by his granddaughter Omatsu, who will have a significant role to play in later films. Once again, Tsukue is to face the inferior swordsman Bunnojo Utsuki in an exhibition match that carries great important for Tsukue’s opponent but virtually none for himself. Utsuki’s fiancĂ©e Ohama begs the notorious swordsman to have mercy on her intended, but her intervention stimulates his lust instead.

The recaps that start parts one and two first says Tsukue “abducts” and then “seduces” Ohama, but it is really something in between. Regardless, their time spent together is mutually miserable, despite the son they bring into the world. Ironically, some of Tsukue’s most peaceful times are spent with Otoyo, a spooky dead-ringer for Ohama (with the emphasis on dead), who nurses the now rogue ronin back to health. Meanwhile, the pilgrim’s granddaughter Omatsu and Utsuki’s young brother Hyomi are thrust together by their shared history with Tsukue. They are also falling in love, but the junior Utsuki gives precedence to his quest for vengeance.

Even if you have seen Sword of Doom, films 2 and 3 largely cover new territory. In yet another ironic twist of fate, part two climaxes with both Tsukue and Utsuki fighting the same crooked feudal lord’s attempt to confiscate a prosperous mining concern, unbeknown to each other. The scope of the epic continues to broaden in the third film when Tsukue and Utsuki align themselves with rival lords, albeit rather reluctantly in Tsukue’s case.

Frankly, Swords in the Moonlight is all good, but it gets even better with each installment. Tsukue also becomes an increasingly intriguing figure. Despite his sociopathic tendencies, we start to see something that resembles tenderness from him in the second and third films. His relationships with women defy easy categorization, especially his ambiguous involvement with a disfigured noble woman, who is another involuntary guest of Tsukue’s patron-lord. Part three also ends with some stone-cold Buddhist “fire and brimstone,” well above and beyond anything in Doom.

Indeed, the series goes from good to great, but ChiezĂ´ Kataoka is always an electric presence as the psychotic yet guilt-ridden Tsukue. He just radiates badassery, even and especially when Tsukue’s eyes start to fail, making him into an evil early ancestor of Zatoichi. Yumiko Hasegawa fully capitalizes on her opportunity to be exquisitely tragic under two very different circumstances as Ohama and Otoyo, while Satomi Oka and Yorozuya Kinnosuke are rather appealing as Omatsu and Hyomi Utsuki. As an added bonus, Muku (the wonder dog) manages to be as handy as Lassie without coming across as a gimmick.

That’s right, there is a ton of hardcore hacking and slashing in the Moonlight trilogy, plus a faithful canine saves the day several times over. Uchida even throws in some macabrely expressionistic dream sequences. Seriously, what more could a movie lover ask for? Very highly recommended for Jidaigeki fans, Swords in the Moonlight Parts 1, 2, and 3 screens again this Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons (11/1-11/3) as part of MoMA’s revelatory Tomu Uchida retrospective.