Director – Sadao Yamanaka –1935 – Japan – 92m (longest available version)
Period drama in which various characters palm a worthless pot off on others only to later discover it’s extremely valuable – plays UK cinemas in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2023 between Friday, 3rd February and Friday, 31st March
A gorgeous restoration by Nikkatsu, this populist potboiler from 1935 is an excuse to show off the talents of chambara star Denjiro Okochi as the eponymous ronin Tange Sazen, who at one point cheerfully admits himself to be a freeloader off of archery club hostess and geisha house owner Ofuji (Kiyozo).
The equally eponymous pot, however, is in the film from the start, as after he has passed it off to his brother Genzaburo (Kunitaro Sawamura) who has married the daughter of a swordsman in Edo, a regional Yagyu Lord is informed that the pot’s glaze conceals a map to the whereabouts of a treasure chest containing a million ryo hidden by one of his ancestors shortly. Unaware of its considerable value, the latter’s wife Hagino (Hanai Ranko) is embarrassed by this piece of worthless junk and wants her husband to throw it in the shed, so she doesn’t have to look at it.
Being offered a sum by an emissary of his brother to sell it back to him, Genzaburo refuses, believing that the pot must be worth something after all, but by this time, his wife has flogged to to a junk dealer who winds up giving it to his lone parent, next-door neighbour Schichibee’s son Yasu who is after a suitable receptacle for his pet goldfish. Schichibee is a regular of an evening at Ofuji’s archery club hostess, but is embarrassed by his humble situation and, following an incident where he shows up customers by hitting an archery target in one shot, refuses to allow Tange Sazen, working as the bouncer, to accompany him all the way home, getting mugged and killed by the slighted customers on the final part of his journey, leaving the couple to take in and feed Yasu.
The various characters pursue the pot, but in the end, no-one gets it and claims the reward. Instead, the audience gets the pleasure of watching the various characters bemoan their lot. Genzaburo runs a dojo school, and finds himself up against Tange Sazen when the latter accrues a 60 ryo debt and knows that challenging a dojo school to extort money from the loses is the fastest way he can pay it off. He doesn’t want to find the pot, believing that in the process of looking for it, he can enjoy a life of leisure hanging out at the archery club which would son come to a stop were the task to be completed.
Not only the first but also reckoned the best of Nikkatsu’s Tange Sazen series, it was also featured in Akika Kurosawa’s list of his hundred favourite films of all time. As a comedy. It’s not without a certain charm, and still entertains a contemporary audience. Story-wise, the second half keeps going off at tangents, yet despite that it’s consistently engaging. Weirdly, it doesn’t really have any samurai action until the last 15 or so minutes, when it piles it on. The film mostly succeeds on the grumpiness of its samurai character, the charm of the child and the compelling haplessness of the Yagyu Lord’s brother.
Tange Sazen And The Pot Worth A Million Ryo plays UK cinemas in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2023 between Friday, 3rd February and Friday, 31st March.