Daisuke Itō’s three part series tells the story of robin hood style folk hero Kunisada Chuji. Praised at release in 1927, the was lost until partially found in the 1990s. The film follows anecdotal tales of Chuji’s honor and dignity as he leads his band of fugitives.
Instead of self glory and self preservation at the cost of those around him, much like the central figures in gangster films, Chuji is more focused on standing up for what is “right”. Targets of his loyalty are those in his band, a young boy that he takes under his wing, and the daughter of a local sake merchant. His tale is a lonely one that ends with his capture and death, similar to the real life Chuji.
Chuji Tabi Nikki is historical for being the oldest surviving, although only partially, film portraying the Yakuza. Denjirō Ōkōchi’s portrayal of Chuji feels like it is right off the page of artist depictions. His makeup and pantomime skills are perfect for the silent era. His mother was the daughter of a Confucian scholar and samurai. That mixed with his early years working in theater made him a perfect candidate for Jidai geki (period dramas) requiring sword play skills.
It is clear that he is comfortable with the sword play as well as with the acting required for this film. He is able to film the action scenes, dramatic scenes with other male costars, and play the more romantic role when working along side his female love interest Okume, Ranko Sawa.
The cinematography is also noteworthy as cinematographers Rokuzō Watarai & Hiromitsu Karasawa did an excellent job at capturing the action sequences and making them feel immersive. The below clip marked at 50:32 shows the beginning of a fight sequence that cuts in and out of the action and has the camera front and center of the action.
Of the two main groups of Yakuza precursors, bakuto (gamblers) and tekiya (peddlers), Chuji and his gang would be described as bakuto. Meaning that they were a traveling group of gamblers and their actions were deemed illegal. On top of that, Daisuke Itō portrayed them in a style later coined ninkyo eiga, or chivalry films. Meaning that the characters are honorable outlaws that are torn between right and wrong. The alternative portrayal would be a typical gangster that is cut throat and doing whatever it takes to survive.
It is unfortunate that the entire three film series is not available as the series is said to be one of the greatest films of the era in Japan. Chuji Tabi Nikki‘s early establishment of the Yakuza film genre and excellent cinematography and acting are most noteworthy. Hopefully more reels have survived in some lost vault somewhere.
Directed by: Daisuke Itō
Cinematography: Rokuzō Watarai & Hiromitsu Karasawa
Written by: Daisuke Itō
Starring: Denjirō Ōkōchi, Naoe Fushimi, Ranko Sawa, & Hideo Nakamura.
Runtime: 1h 37m
Genre: Drama, Yakuza Film
Distributed by: Nikkatsu
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