Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji (1955)
Directed by Tomu Uchida

Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji
Chiyari Fuji
Starring Chiezo Kataoka (Gonpachi), Eijiro Kataoka (Sakawa), Daisuke Kato (Genta), Ryunosuke Tsukigata (Tozaburo), Chizuru Kitagawa, Yuriko Tashiro, Eitaro Shindo (The pilgrim), Toranosuke Ogawa, Kunio Kaga
Screenplay by Shintaro Mimura and Fuji Yahiro

Toei Company, 90 minutes
B&W, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji is a perfect gem of a movie, a masterpiece that functions by playing on your expectations and slowly transforming into a more substantial statement than it first appears to be. It leads off as a lighthearted road movie with an ensemble of diverse characters loosely traveling together through episodic comedy events. We have a samurai and his two servants, an orphan boy, a Buddhist pilgrim, an itinerant shamisen player and her little girl, a morose middle-aged man and his beautiful daughter, a highway policeman and a paranoid fellow hiding a large sum of cash who's suspected to be a thief on the loose. The first half of Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji is really funny and charming, but as we come to learn the secrets that various characters have been hiding, as somber air of tragedy descends.

The central character is Gonpachi, the lancer or spear bearer serving his samurai master Sakawa. Gonpachi seems to be getting over the hill and worn out, but he continues to conduct his duties with utmost earnestness. Even though he's stricken with a blistered foot, Gonpachi proudly refuses when the other servant Genta offers to carry the spear. On the road Gonpachi befriends the orphan boy Jiro, who says he wants to be a samurai when he grows up. After Gonpachi explains his duties, Jiro says he'd like to be a lancer. Gonpachi is so touched at the thought of a kid aspiring to his lowly post that he lets Jiro try holding the spear.

Traveling to Edo to take some valuable ceramics to his mother, Sakawa is a kind-hearted samurai who treats Gonpachi and Genta more like his friends than his underlings. Sakawa's major weakness is that drinking turns him into a raging maniac, and servants have been charged with keeping him away from alcohol on the journey.

After Sakawa catches Genta sneaking out for sake, the master takes his servant out for a drink. Genta is alarmed at this, not only because alcohol if off-limits but also because it's a huge breach of protocol for a samurai to socialize with his servants like equals. Sakawa assures him that he's not going to drink, he just wants Genta to be able to enjoy his sake without sneaking around. But of course, the pair of them end up getting blind drunk. Sakawa goes on a rampage against some innocent bystanders until Gonpachi comes along to get the situation under control.

Then we get another picaresque scenario when the travelers' progress is blocked by a group of aristocrats holding a formal tea ceremony in the middle of the highway. Unfortunately, Jiro is suffering from indigestion after eating too many persimmons he bought with money Gonpachi gave him. Gonpachi helps the boy make it to the high weeds by the roadside in time to relieve himself. And the fancy tea ceremony situated downwind gets disrupted by the resulting stench. It's one of the few times you'll find potty humor in a major jidai-geki classic.

The story takes a turn for the serious as we learn the backstories behind the various characters, which I won't reveal. When he learns that some of their fellow travelers are in dire financial straits, Sakawa takes his prized spear to a pawn shop to get the money to help them. But he discovers that the spear, an heirloom supposedly given to his family by Ieyasu Tokugawa, is actually a worthless replica. Meanwhile, the identity of the thief is revealed, and Gonpachi inadvertently apprehends the escaping criminal at the tip of the counterfeit spear. The local authorities grant Sakawa an award for his bravery in capturing the thief, even though Sakawa protests that Gonpachi should get the credit. The officials contend that a servant acts for his master.

So we have a fake spear being used by accident to stop a two-faced thief, and the wrong person gets the recognition. Plus, Sakawa expresses resentment that the award is a mere piece of paper instead of money, which he so badly needs to help the others. The samurai has to laugh in resignation over all the layers of falsehood and emptiness. Sakawa's disappointed introspection is magnified further when he watches one of the poor travelers finding the resources and the generosity to give the money that he, a socially superior samurai, was unable to raise.

To quell his frustrations, Sakawa heads out for another sake binge accompanied by Genta. Sakawa gives Genta a magnificent lecture questioning the accepted relationship between master and servant, and asks whether samurai are worthy of their high standing when decent commoners are capable of greater valor. When Sakawa and Genta drank before, no one objected. But this time a rowdy gang of drunken samurai takes exception to the sight their peer drinking with his servant. When Sakawa stands up to defend Genta's worth, swords are drawn and there's a horrible outcome.

The title of the movie is Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji, and up until the final ten minutes there's no evidence of the spear in the story being linked to any bloodshed. So there's an anticipation throughout that this initially lighthearted yarn will give way to violence, and the conclusion does in fact pay off the title. It's up to Gonpachi to prove the true worth of a servant and take on the five strong samurai armed with his master's discredited sword. The fight scene is as intense and grueling as any Musashi Miyamoto duel, with a level of chaotic fury that proved unsettling for audiences upon the film's release.

Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji was significant as Tomu Uchida's postwar comeback film. After serving as one of the founding pioneers of Japanese cinema, he spent a number of years in Manchuria after the war before coming home and releasing Bloody Spear in 1955. The movie has been described as both a scathing political statement and a tribute to Uchida's friend Sadao Yamanaka, who was killed in combat in Manchuria. It definitely has a flavor similar to Yamanaka's great Humanity and Paper Balloons with the shared theme of injustice in the established social order. Bloody Spear also has the distinction of having the esteemed troika of Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Daisuke Ito as associate producers, making this a rare jidai-geki film with the direct involvement of the legendary Ozu.

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