[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
Two swordsmen stare each other down. Wind howls through the empty street. Sweat trickles. Eyes narrow. Limbs tense. Suddenly, steel flashes, and the opponents charge and clash! A suspenseful moment of uncertainty passes. Then, finally, one combatant collapses. The survivor sheathes his blade.
It's a stock scene, instantly familiar to fans of such essential jidaigeki classics as Sanjuro, Harakiri, and Three Outlaw Samurai—but Nikkatsu's Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo fundamentally alters its emotional impact with the addition of a simple punchline:
“Why’s that guy groaning so much?” the victorious duelist's young companion innocently inquires as he emerges from his hiding spot, spared from having to witness the violent encounter.
The ronin merely shrugs, smirks, and replies, “He gambled and lost.”
Although the chanbara genre wouldn’t attain widespread popularity until the 1960s, its basic visual language had already been thoroughly established before the end of the silent era. Still, it’s a bit surprising to learn that the various tropes, clichés, and storytelling conventions of samurai movies were being subverted, deconstructed, and outright parodied as early as 1935. Adopting a tone that more closely resembles the contemporary comedies produced by Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers than it does the cynical source material (much to the original author’s chagrin), director Sadao Yamanaka reimagines Tange Sazen's eponymous one-armed, one-eyed antihero as a lazy, grumpy teddy bear—an uncouth layabout that pretends to be a taciturn nihilist… but in reality can’t stomach the thought of an unhappy child.
The entire film revolves around such humorous juxtapositions. One minor (albeit narratively significant) supporting character, for example, is a penniless junk peddler that masquerades as a wealthy merchant in order to impress the bewitching proprietress of the local archery parlor. The deuteragonist, meanwhile, is the disgruntled second son of the Yagyu clan, who tirelessly searches for the titular teapot—or, more specifically, for the map secretly hidden therein, which leads to a vast buried treasure. That’s what he tells his nagging wife, anyway; in actuality, he quickly discovers that he enjoys aimlessly wandering the city’s bustling red light district, flirting with pretty geisha, and shirking his responsibilities as a fencing instructor. Consequently, he makes every effort to prolong his quest. “After all, Edo is a huge place,” he repeatedly insists. “[Finding the pot] could take ten or twenty years, like vengeance!”
By playing the pulpy premise for laughs instead of melodrama and adding humanity and dimension to traditionally flat archetypes, Yamanaka crafts a work of pop art that feels wholly unique in an otherwise formulaic cinematic landscape. Elevated by razor-sharp editing (including several expertly implemented Gilligan Cuts—seeing our gruff protagonist reluctantly doing exactly what he literally just refused to do is consistently hilarious) and excellent music, Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo is a genuine postmodern masterpiece—even in its current incomplete form.
(Seriously, missing footage has rendered the climactic battle borderline incomprehensible. The fact that the rest of the plot is sturdy enough to compensate for such a glaring omission is nothing short of miraculous.)