The Million Ryo Pot (1935)
Directed by Sadao Yamanaka

The Million Ryo Pot
Tange Sazen yowa: Hyakuman ryo no tsubo
Starring Denjiro Okochi (Tange Sazen), Kiyozo (Ofuji), Kunitaro Sawamura (Genzaburo), Reisaburo Yamamoto (Yokichi), Minoru Takase (Shigeju), Ranko Hanai (Hagino)
Screenplay by Shintaro Mimura

Nikkatsu, 92 minutes
B&W, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

Sadao Yamanaka's 1935 classic is among the earliest of a long line of jidai-geki starring Tange Sazen, the one-eyed, one-armed swordsman. Tange Sazen seems like a Japanese folklore character who might have been around for centuries, but he actually first appeared in popular fiction stories of the 1920s written by Fubo Hayashi. Denjiro Okochi had previously portrayed Sazen in a number of silent films directed by Datsuke Ito and reprised the role in Yamanaka's entry in the series, which was the first Tange Sazen talkie.

So for this episode it's assumed the audience already knows the backstory of how a betrayed samurai lost an eye and an arm and became the manic ronin known as Tange Sazen. This we jump right into the plot of the urn worth a million ryo, which is the best-known Sazen tale. The lord of the Yagyu clan (a group later seen in plenty of ninja chambara) learns of a hidden Yagyu treasure of a million pieces of gold. The secret location of this fortune has been recorded on a family heirloom described as "an old monkey pot," which the lord has recently given away to his good-for-nothing younger brother Genzaburo without knowing its worth. When servants come asking to buy the pot back, Genzaburo refuses out of prideful spite and has his wife Hagino sell it to junk dealers for a pittance, ignorant of its worth.

The pot ends up serving as a goldfish bowl for a young boy named Yasu. Yasu's father enjoys shooting arrows at an archery parlor, which is where we meet Tange Sazen. Sazen is described as the "master" of the establishment, but his duties seem to involve napping most of the time, possibly hungover, and occasionally acting as bouncer when customers raise a ruckus. The true proprietor is a lady called Ofuji, who plays the shamisen and displays a sassy, non-nonsense attitude. In other Tange Sazen stories, Sazen and Ofuji are lovers, but Yamanaka leaves their relationship more undefined and platonic, though they mainly bicker like an old married couple. After Yasu's widowed father meets an unfortunate fate, Sazen and Ofuji reluctantly take the boy in, unwittingly becoming the custodians of the million ryo pot.

Genzaburo, meanwhile, having learned the true value of the pot that Hagino sold, vows to track down the pot even if it takes 10 or 20 years. But in fact, Genzaburo is such a lazy bum that he only uses the quest as an excuse to get out of the house to go gambling and goof off every day. He takes up shooting targets at Ofuji's place, and thus Genzaburo ends up with the pot right under his nose, though he's too concerned with his amusements to notice it.

And thus we have the setup for a spectacular comedy of errors. Yamanaka proves himself a master of comic irony in all its many shades: we have characters oblivious to the facts the audience knows, we have characters saying one thing but meaning something entirely different, and characters repeatedly demonstrating their hypocrisy. It's one of the funniest jidai-geki movies ever made, with that perfectly pitched vintage comedy flavor like you'll find in the Marx Brothers or Three Stooges of the same period.

But The Million Ryo Pot is also amazingly timeless in its execution and style. You could easily believe it was made 20 or 30 years later, instead of in 1935. Yamanaka uses loads of cinematic technique you don't normally see in the earliest motion pictures with sound: cutting to the audio of the next scene before the film cut; sophisticated horizontal tracking shots; slow dissolves and rapid jump cuts to show the passage of time. One of my favorite moments is when Genzaburo is leaving home yet again, giving Hagino his B.S. about his tireless efforts in search of the pot, how Edo is such a huge place, how this mission is like going out revenge, etc. There's a shot of the floor and his feet as he puts on his outer kimono for traveling. Then there's a seamless cut to that kimono being thrown to the floor, and we realize we're back at the archery parlor for Genzaburo to waste more time. This type of ellipsis edit has become a standard trick in modern comedy, but it must have been revolutionary in its day.

Tange Sazen himself somewhat ends up taking a backseat to all the complications surrounding the wayward pot. The savagely wounded ronin looks menacing and monstrous, but he has a tender heart as his compassionate interactions with young Yasu reveal. Okochi's version of the Sazen character is a bit of a clown and dimwitted at times, in comparison to the grittier and more serious interpretation that appeared in later decades.

Although The Million Ryo Pot is primarily a lighthearted comedy, it does also qualify as chambara. Sazen doesn't pull out his sword much (and being one-handed, he has to hold his scabbard in his mouth to do so), but there is one scene where he tells Yasu to hide his eyes while he kills a guy. More importantly, there's his big showdown with Genzaburo. Sazen likes to earn money by barging into dojos and whooping everybody's butt until they pay him to leave. It turns out that Genzaburo is the head of a dojo, in ceremonious terms at least, and when Sazen has humiliated all of its students, it's up to Genzaburo to face the wild ronin and preserve the dojo's honor. Being the giant wuss he is, Genzaburo bribes Sazen to lose their match, and the resulting "battle" is probably the most hilarious part of the movie.

I also have to make special mention of the excellent work of the mysterious one-named actress Kiyozo, who plays Ofuji. She gives a dynamic, thoroughly naturalistic performance unlike the more mannered and theatrical style common to actresses in the earliest days of cinema. She's also a wonderful singer, as shown in her somber shamisen ballad that serves as the film's theme song. I'd love to see more of Kiyozo's work, but IMDb lists this as her only screen credit.

All in all, a thoroughly delightful movie and one of the top jidai-geki classics.

The Jidai-Geki Knights