Director: Mikio Naruse
Starring: Kazuo Hasegawa, Kinuyo Tanaka, Sensho Ichikawa, Akitake Kono, Ayako Katsuragi, Haruo Tanaka, Tamae Kiyokawa
I have to admit, in recent years I have not really had a chance to go back and take a look at many older films in the old ‘to watch’ pile. Seems like whatever new release always pushes titles farther and farther back on the queue. So considering the large number of modern films I’ve reviewed recently, I firmly decided I wanted to see something I had never viewed before, and it absolutely had to be in black and white. I am definitely glad I did however, or who knows how much longer it would have been until I had seen this gem of a film.
A Tale of Archery…, follows the story of young but skillful archer, Daihachiro. As he attempts to defeat an archery record at Sanjusangendo temple, he finds the pressure of the challenge and outside forces at work against him. When he and his supporters are attacked by people wanting to preserve the previous record holder’s feat, he finds a defender in Karatsu Kanbei, a samurai who interjects himself into the conflict and promises to support Daihachiro until the tournament. As the day of the contest approaches, everyone’s feelings on the contest are explored with motivations explained, relationships forged, and stages set.
Kanbei, played by Kazuo Hasegawa, is great as the strong and mysterious defender who himself on the line for Daihachiro’s sake, because he wishes to see the record broken. Daihachiro, played by Sensho Ichikawa, is good as the troubled but talented archer who finds a confidant and friend in Kanbei. Supporting performances are very good, especially by the talented Kinuyo Tanaka, who plays Okinu, the innkeeper and friend of Daihachiro who shelters and gives him a place to train. Together, these three actors’ create an intimate and compelling experience.
While not a swordplay film per se, there are two fight scenes which are filmed pretty well. Long cuts and the traditional style of filming make it instantly identifiable as a Japanese sword fight. The archery in the film is never used against another person, but only in training and in the final competition. I’ve always marveled at the uniqueness of Japanese archery versus other countries, and the sportsmanship and craft of such a skill is readily apparent. Indeed, the film is a lot like modern sports films, practice amplifies talent, and the pressures of the contest affect the participants’ mentally and physically. This makes the film hugely accessible, even today, as it is a simple story that was free from a lot of the propaganda of many other films of that time.
Filmed in the waning months of World War II, on location in Kyoto, Mikio Naruse’s A Tale of Archery at Sanjusangendo is very unique among the filmmaker’s rather long and storied career. More of a mainstream film than the humanistic dramas for which he is primarily known, A Tale of Archery… is an immensely entertaining jidai geki film that I personally think deserves to be more widely recognized. It is entertaining, well acted, and a real treat for fans of classic Japanese cinema. Highly recommended.
You may enjoy A Tale of Archery at Sanjusangendo if you enjoyed: Sansho the Bailiff, Story of Floating Weeds, or This Happy Life