Sunday, March 25, 2007

Eijanaika (1981)

The Shohei Imamura fest rolls on at BAM, and Friday was graced with an absolutely beautiful print of Eijanaika, an ecstatically raucous film from 1981. It's set in mid-19th century Japan, during the waning days of the Tokugawa shogunate and the beginning of its Westernization following Commodore Perry's arrival in 1853. The shogunate is warring with a loose cadre of rebels aiming to restore the imperial throne, which results in the Meiji Restoraion of 1868. But Imamura is no top-down filmmaker, he's a down and further down filmmaker, so the historical upheaval is just a backdrop to the struggle for the survival of Genji, a poor itinerant recently returned from abroad in the US after his boat shipwrecked. He returns to find that his wife has been sold off and is now working in Edo as a sideshow performer in a classy program entitled "Tickle the Goddess" (it is what you think it is).

He rushes off to find her and soon gets embroiled in internecine warfare, hired by the local pimp to play both sides off the other (there's a great scene where he tells him and a couple other thugs to incite a riot but protect the landowners at the same time - he's getting paid by both).

Imamura depicts Edo as a Rabelaisian madhouse - packed to the gills with screaming, braying, clawing, fucking people just trying to scrape by. The impenetrable political web of betrayals and double-crossings just adds to the atmosphere - trying to follow every plot thread would give you an aneurysm.

The choreography of masses of actors in the frame is impressive - such chaos doesn't come about accidentally, and the richness of color in the costuming is overwhelming, especially in the final half-hour - which contains one of the most jubilant scenes of communal protest I've ever seen. It all starts with another sideshow, this time a caricature of the can-can, starring Genji's wife once again. But soon it morphs into a wild free-for-all, as the crowd busts out of the tent and heads across the bridge to the Shogun's army, as they all chant "Eijanaika", or "Why Not?". I won't give anything else away - other than it's an overwhelming bit of pure cinema.


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