Tomu Uchida/ Japan/ 1955/ 94 mins
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 3 Sep 2018
With a title like Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji, you would expect an all-action samurai epic. This isn’t what transpires. Though the titular weapon is front-and-centre for the duration like a pointy Chekhov’s gun, this drama is for the most part a rather affable, warm and bucolic road movie. Under the implacable gaze of the mountain, a small band of travellers are making their way to Edo. Samurai Kojūrō (Teruo Shimada), servant Genta (Daisuke Katō) and spear carrier Ganpachi (Chiezō Kataoka) are joined by various waifs and strays along the way in true road movie fashion. Kojūrō is a kindly master, but becomes a different person when he’s had a drink; knowledge imparted early that lurks in every frame of the film. even in its gentlest moments.
Tomu Uchida isn’t a name that’s widely known to most film fans but he was highly regarded by the likes of acknowledged masters like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, the latter enough to work in a producer capacity on Bloody Spear. It’s easy to see why. The film fits in neatly with the classics of the decade, with vibrant characters and a deeply humanist message. There’s also an ambivalence about the Samurai code, respectful of its emphasis on honour, but satirical of the rigidity of its hierarchical structures in a way similar to Masaki Kobayashi‘s sadly little-seen masterpiece Harakiri. The black and white photography is beautiful and Katō and Kataoka are a delight as the bickering servants.
The abrupt, violent climax may seem jarring when compared to what has gone before but it’s hinted at all the way through so it comes as no real surprise. Indeed, it is a scene that could be transplanted into any number of westerns with similar themes of vengeance and the sudden, inevitable nature of violence in a dangerous world. It’s perhaps not as impressively staged as the meticulous brilliance of the best of Kurosawa, but the sand turning to mud under the torrent from pierced barrels of sake is evocative and an elegant visual metaphor for lives thrown away. Kataoka gives his all in this gruelling fight, sheer rage and physicality hauling him through and it’s undoubtedly a scene worth waiting for.
Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji is undoubtedly a film that deserves reevaluation and a whole new audience. While not quite matching the best of Uchida’s legendary contemporaries, it certainly doesn’t suffer in comparison and is notable for its warmth and humanity, tempered by its keen sense of the arbitrariness of life and death.