Yuzo Kawashima’s films are like Rube Goldberg machines, where you never know in which direction you will go from one point to another, or how do so many subplots are meant to come together into something meaningful. In his work, there is always an element of surprise whenever a new character enters the film, a location changes, or simply a cut allows for an even slighter change of perspective. And yet, somehow he always succeeds in finding the right threads among all the convoluted narratives to come up with something surprisingly simple. “Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate” contains all of those trademark “tricks”.
“Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate” was dubbed as the fourth best Japanese film ever by Kinema Jumpo, and although it’s clearly aimed at the domestic audience and many references were lost on me, there is still a lot of fun to be had from one of the final films from the late Kawashima.
The film begins with a scene of pursuit, and really what follows for the next two hours are series of chases, lies and dodges in a brilliantly paced comedy. To sum up the entire plot of the movie would probably take a couple of pages, but it’s safe to say that in terms of the scope of the entire narrative, it’s one of Kawashima’s most ambitious works. It’s set in 1862, the final years of the Bunkyu era, just a couple of moments before the fall of the Shogun. And the feeling of change is pointedly reemphasised by various characters who either: don’t have too much time left, are in a rush, want to move on and change their lives but can’t, or the opposite, try to cling to the past with all what’s left. The episodic, or even mosaic structure of the film allows for the investigation of all those issues.
Set in a bordello in a red lights district, this farce explores a wide array of characters representing, like in other Kawashima films, of the entire Japanese society. To make do in this busy building, you have to be an agent of chaos. More so, the more erratic and pugnacious you are, the higher the chances of surviving. This is most overtly demonstrated by one of the prostitutes who says in a disarmingly honest confession that ‘Deception is my business’. But there is one player at the top of his game – Furanki Sakai’s Grifter, who slowly climbs his way up the ladder and manages to have everyone indebted to him. This energetic and cheeky performance is easily one of the most remarkable feats in terms of comedic acting I had a chance to see in a while.
“Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate” is a demonstration of a masterful talent in layered storytelling that few directors could match. It could be likened to the way Robert Altman made his movies, with a plethora of characters that populate the screen. Add to this Kurataro Takamura’s cinematography which, with the help of Tadashi Nakamura’s editing, contribute to the hectic pace of the film. The end product is easily one of the most impressive classic Japanese comedies, and a pinnacle of Kawashima’s career.