[From March Issue 2012]
Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate (Directed by KAWASHIMA Yuzo)
This movie was originally released in 1957. Nikkatsu movie studios, which produced and distributed this work, is now celebrating its 100th anniversary. To mark the occasion, since May last year, this film has been screened as part of a tour of America, Asia and Europe. It was re-released in Japan in late December. More than 50 years have now passed since the movie was made, but it is still quite popular; in 2009 it was ranked fourth by a movie magazine in a list of “all-time best” movies.
Set 150 years ago in 1862, the Edo era – which had lasted for 265 years – is about to end. The location is Sagamiya, an inn in Shinagawa which actually existed. Sagamiya was the first stop for travelers on the Tokaido Road that linked Nihonbashi in Edo to Sanjo-Ohashi in Kyoto. The plot, which mixes in historical fact and fiction, is a fast-paced comedy based on several classic rakugo (comic stories).
Even though he’s broke, our hero, the merchant Saheiji visits Sagamiya. Ignoring his friend’s concerns, he orders lots of alcohol and delicious treats, and encourages his pals to fool around with prostitutes. That night, he lets all his friends return home. The next day, Saheiji honestly confesses that he does not have any money. Angered by Saheiji’s attitude, which is not at all contrite, the owner throws him into a small room full of spider webs.
However, Saheiji slips out of the room and, by doing things like serving customers and solving problems involving prostitutes, manages on each occasion to make some cash. Although some employees consider Saheiji to be a threat to their livelihood, nobody can match his sharp tongue and quick wit. After some time, the owner, prostitutes, and customers of the inn start to ask him for advice.
In this milieu, Saheiji hears about two big plots. One is cooked up by the samurai TAKASUGI Shinsaku and his followers, who have been staying at the inn for a long time. Aiming to prevent the country from opening up to the West by any means necessary, the group plots to set fire to the British legation. This part of the drama is based on historical fact: on December 12, 1862, Takasugi and his men did actually leave Sagamiya in order to set fire to the British legation.
Another plot involves a girl who plans to elope. To pay off her father’s debts, the girl has been sold into a life of prostitution at Sagamiya. In order to save herself from such an intolerable fate, she encourages the owner’s son, a notorious playboy, to elope with her, despite the fact that she does not really like him. When the girl asks him for help, Saheiji gets the girl’s father, who works at the British legation, to draw a plan of the building. In exchange for the plan, Saheiji gets the samurai group to help the couple run away.
One of the attractions of this movie is that the cast features many stars of that period. Though many big stars, like ISHIHARA Yujiro (who plays Takasugi) had supporting roles, in contrast, the lead part of Saheiji was played by Frankie SAKAI, an actor who despite being popular as a comic actor, was not considered to be particularly handsome. This creative casting is one of the factors that continues to attract movie fans of today.