“Sanchu Uprising: Voices at Dawn” – 2015 Japan Cuts Review

“I find myself constantly asking myself what exactly “freedom” means. And when I do, I would always face contradictions.” – Juichiro Yamasaki, Director, “Sanchu Uprising: Voices at Dawn”

In Juichiro Yamasaki’s sophomore feature, the conflict between the haves and have-nots is reduced to the struggles of a few farmers and blue-collar laborers against a mainly unseen force of samurai and shogunate bureaucrats. Set in the middle of the Edo period, a time of great peace and prosperity in Japan, “Sanchu Uprising: Voices at Dawn” (新しき民) kicks off when timid Jihei (Nakagaki Naohisa) gets embroiled in some local politics after his brother-in-law asks him to help his group negotiate with the prefectural government on exempting their region from various taxes.

Yamasaki takes a page from Art Theatre Guild (ATG) new wave darlings like Masahiro Shinoda and Nagisa Oshima. The ATG was infamous in the ‘60s and ‘70s for, at first, distributing foreign arthouse films in Japan, and then much later producing pictures and nurturing various auteurs. What connected all these disparate talents was that their films often utilized Brechtian stage tropes, and were highly Leftist and politicized. Like those earlier ATG works, “Sanchu Uprising: Voices at Dawn” is based on an event in Japanese history; in 1726 there really was a tax rebellion in an area called Sanchu that led to armed conflict between samurai and peasants, leaving several dead.

Unlike the recent spate of jidai-geki, Yamasaki opts for a rough DIY aesthetic. When the camera tracks characters it often shakes, mimicking a COPS-style verite crew chasing after its subject. This documentary approach is extended to composition; a lack of close-ups means that interesting moments are recorded either from a vantage point quite far from its subject or as if a camera man was merely shooting from the hip.

The film doesn’t stray at all from the facts or veer away from a realistic portrayal. Yet after the dust has settled, Yamasaki pushes the story into a more stylized and metaphoric visual territory. This is where the film falters a bit. Though I do appreciate everything the film has to offer, these later avant-garde scenes are a bit too heavy-handed.  The transition from a classical visual style to an experimental theatrical milieu is jarring and devoid of reason.  The Brechtian digressions are at best cliché and at worst self-righteous drivel as the film’s closing message amounts to a cyclical understanding of political and social strife. What began as an engrossing personal tale of a very complicated conflict between two very different social groups ends up becoming a boring political science lecture.

The international premiere of “Sanchu Uprising: Voices at Dawn” takes place at the Japan Society in New York on Sun., July 19, at 6 p.m.  It is the closing film of Japan Cuts 2015.  For ticket information, go to japansociety.org.