Director: Buntarō Futagawa
Starring: Tsumasaburō Bandō, Misao Seki, Utako Tamaki, Kensaku Haruji
Orochi is one of the earliest surviving Japanese films from 1925. At almost a hundred years old the film is significant as a piece of history. The film is directed by Buntarō Futagawa and stars Tsumasaburō Bandō, as a disgraced samurai who is shunned from society and seen as a villain. The film was originally called ‘Outlaw’, which was blocked by censors due to not wanting to make an outlaw seem like a hero and then changed to Orochi, meaning Serpent. Thankfully the moral ambiguity of the characters is still evident in the final film.
While Orochi is a silent film it’s accompanied by a narrator, known as a Benshi. A Benshi would narrate the film in the theatre while the film is played and would be backed by a score of traditional kabuki instruments. In the years since the film was first shown a Benshi has recorded the narration to go alongside the film for home viewing, while there are still films from the era still shown in cinemas occasionally with actual Benshi’s narrating it. Watching the film now, it’s quite strange at first to have the story narrated to you, while watching it play out on screen. It’s almost like listening to an audiobook with moving pictures. It’s a little strange at first, even if you’re used to western silent films where it would just be text on screen and music, but once it gets going you completely forget about it and it just becomes part of the story.
Orochi starts and ends with the narrator explaining how not every villain is completely evil and not all noblemen are worthy of the name. The film explores the grey area of morality and how nothing is as simple as we would like it to be. Heisaburo Kuritomi (Bandō) is disgraced after not accepting a drink from a superior, which starts a fight, and no one takes his side. Bit by bit his social standing is ruined through a series of unfortunate events that mostly aren’t his fault. Heisaburo takes the blame for everything and ends up going to jail. The film gets very dark at points, where Heisaburo starts to act like the villain he’s been labelled as.
The best moment of the film is the long fight sequence towards the end where Tsumasaburō Bandō gets to show his full skill as a swordsman. The footage is speed-up slightly which can make it slightly difficult to make out what’s going on, but the rawness of the fight still shines through. This is a man that’s desperate to survive, who knows that the world doesn’t understand him and has painted him as a villain. It’s a last ditched effort and it’s just as gripping now as it would have been almost a century ago.
At one of the darkest moments in the film and Heisaburo’s story, he is tempted to sexually assault a woman who has been abducted and brought to him. While he manages to overcome his ‘temptations’, as the narration puts it, the film still brands him as a hero, despite having the temptation in the first place. It’s an interesting look at how far he’s been pushed and marginalised by society, but his redemption still sits uncomfortably from a modern viewpoint, especially with how it’s brushed off in the film. The scene itself though is shot with a darkness in the visuals as well as the tone and it’s very striking and sinister to watch.
Orochi is an important piece of history and one of the most influential films in Japanese cinema. It set a standard of how you could tell a morality story and films from Japan wouldn’t have been the same without it.
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