The Birth of Japan (1959)

Nippon Tanjō ; aka The Three Treasures
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Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Screenwriters: Ryuzo Kikushima, Toshio Yasumi

By Roderick Heath

There’s no shortage of movies that borrow from and remix mythology. That sort of thing has been the backbone of film industries, from westerns to Italian peplum or sword-and-sandal films and Chinese wu xia action flicks, through to fare like Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, the Harry Potter and Star Wars series, and superhero blockbusters, all of which depend to some extend on appropriating and recontextualising themes, images, and ideas harvested from the most ancient storytelling forms. And yet, serious, faithful, accomplished screen versions of authentic mythology aren’t that common. The best-known examples include the Greek mythology vehicles for Ray Harryhausen’s effects, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), takes on Arthurian legend like Excalibur (1981), Biblical tales like Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956), and Fritz Lang’s monumental version of Die Nibelungen (1924). After watching Die Nibelungen a few years ago I became interested in finding other ambitious, scrupulous takes on such stories, particularly from beyond Hollywood and Western European cinema. Making these kinds of movie usually demands money and resources beyond most filmmakers. The Soviet Union produced a handful of authentic takes on national folklore, like Ilya Muromets (1956). The Indian and Chinese film industries have produced their own derivations of works like the Ramayana and Journey to the West. But most of these remain fairly obscure outside their homelands.
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The Birth of Japan is an intriguing, hugely enjoyable example of such mythological filmmaking produced with heft and class, recounting some fundamental tales of Shinto creation myths and local cultural traditions, given a makeover in keeping with the epic movie styles of the 1950s and the social upheavals that had been gripping Japan since the end of World War II. Purportedly made as a home-grown answer to The Ten CommandmentsThe Birth of Japan was a major production for Toho Studios, which hired the proven hit-making team of director Hiroshi Inagaki and actor Toshiro Mifune. Inagaki came from a stage background and had been a child actor, before starting his film career at Nikkatsu Studio in the 1920s and debuting as a director at the age of 22. By the 1950s he had become one of the country’s most prolific and admired commercial filmmakers, alternating big-budget historical dramas with smaller films depicting working-class characters and children. The first of the two versions he made of Life of Matsu the Untamed, also called The Rickshaw Man, released in 1943, has been voted one of the ten best Japanese films of all time, whilst his second, released in 1958, won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. Inagaki captured an Oscar in 1955 for the first instalment of his highly successful trilogy about Miyamoto Musashi, also starring Mifune, and the two men were just coming off another notable collaboration, Samurai Saga (1958), a cross-cultural adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac.
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Inagaki’s career faltered eventually, for similar reasons to those Akira Kurosawa confronted in the 1970s, as his brand of filmmaking was held to be dated and too expensive, and unlike Kurosawa his story didn’t have a happy ending, as he became embittered and drank heavily up until his death at 74 in 1980. Inagaki became an increasingly stylised filmmaker in his later career, his theatrical roots flaunted as he incorporated sequences of song and dance with a quality akin to pan-cultural curation, and happily used the lush colour of the period to realise an affectedly illustrative style in strong contrast to the crisp, subtly stylised naturalism of Kenji Mizoguchi’s late work and Kurosawa’s cool, stark expanses. The Birth of Japan gave free rein to such an approach, as the film unfolds through counterpointing Shinto creation myths with the more worldly narrative of Prince Yamato Takeru, tracing the legendary divine origins of the Japanese Imperial family and some of the iconography attendant to the royal throne. The three treasures mentioned in one of the film’s alternate titles and featured in the several vignettes are still part of the closely-guarded coronation regalia of the Emperors, only ever glimpsed by the Emperor and a select number of Shinto priests: the sword Kusanagi or “Grasscutter,” the mirror Yata no Kagami, and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama.
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The film opens with the creation of the world and humanity as recounted into Shinto belief. One intriguing aspect of The Birth of Japan from a western perspective is how familiar some aspects of the legends found within are, from its Adam and Eve-like first lovers to the martial drama of national unification revolving around singular magical swords. The opening depicts the formation of heaven in the midst of a chaotic universe, and the advent of the pantheon on Shinto gods and goddesses. Two of them, the male and female gods Izanagi and Izanami (Shizuko Muramatsu), are assigned to try and make the drowned world below heaven into something solid and inhabitable. Astride a rainbow that bridges the two realms, Izanagi stirs forms of boiling mass to emerge from the waters by waving a spear. The gods visit the resulting land form, called Onokoro. Finding themselves defined in mortal form as they descend to Earth, they perform the first ever marriage rite by circling the island. Eons later, this tale is recounted by an old woman storyteller (Haruko Sugimura) to the citizens of Yamato, a kingdom on Honshu named after the clan of the area’s rulers, who would later become the imperial dynasty of the whole of Japan. The storyteller’s recitations of the creation tales contrast and punctuate the central drama, which involves the Prince of Yamato, Ōsu (Mifune), son of the elderly Emperor Keikō (Ganjirô Nakamura).
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Returning from a successful hunt, Prince Ōsu is told his older brother (Hajime Izu) is cavorting with one of his father’s serving girls in a gross breach of family honour. Finding them together in a hut, the Prince brutalises his brother and drives him into exile. The Emperor is coming increasingly under the control of his second wife’s clan, led by the devious patriarch Ootomo (Eijirô Tôno), and when the Prince’s brother tries to return, Ootomo kills him, and lets the Emperor think Ōsu did the deed, so the Emperor keeps sending his son off on risky military ventures, hoping he’ll be killed or at least kept away for a long time. Meanwhile, as the Ootomos gain greater control, a law banning marriages between people of different local clans and states results in many being executed or exiled. The Prince’s first assignment is to take on some a fearsome pair of brother robber barons, the Kumasos (Takashi Shimura and Kôji Tsuruta), and bring their territory under Yamato control. When he does manage to bring the Kumasos down, the younger brother, a more reasonable and philosophical man, suggests to the Prince with his dying words that he be known from now on as Yamato Takeru, variably translated as the Strongest or the Bravest in the Land, and begs him to bring peace to the warring nation by unifying it under a strong hand.
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Like much mythology from around the world, the legends portrayed here have political and religious motives. Much of this lore was synthesised to provide divine origins and stature for the Japanese Imperial family, as well as offering conduits connecting human order to the celestial, wrapping certain ritual dictums in a tangled knot with historical facts. In the original tales Yamato Takeru stands as a culture hero with many ready analogues in western traditions, including Hercules, with whom he shared a ferocious temper and great strength, Arthur, as a unifying warrior-poet associated with a divinely invested sword, and several protagonists of the Trojan tales, immortalised by great feats and powers but brought low by his failure to properly heed the Gods. In legends codified in the Kojiki or Book of Ancient Things, Yamato Takeru really did kill his brother, ripping off his arms no less, and eventually died when he unwittingly picked a fight with a local god who struck him down with disease. Other histories neglected such piquant details, and The Birth of Japan exploits this wriggle room to revise legend with contemporary resonances and personal meaning for Inagaki, toning Takeru down and making the wayward Prince more a misunderstood hero, rueing his reputation for headstrong ferocity whilst evolving into a statesman who finally pronounces his faith that more can be achieved by talking than with force of arms.
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One immediate subtext inferred by the title and borne out by the approach to its hero is the film is also about the rebirth of Japan as post-war state, striving to leave behind a reputation for bellicosity, trying to better understand itself and achieve a new blend of ancient and modern precepts. Inagaki emphasises construction, glimpsing the Yamato citizens building new and increasingly ambitious structures as their city-state grows, nodding to the postwar reconstruction process. Inagaki tries to intuitively depict ancient Japan, a time before much of the familiar cultural paraphernalia of the country evolved – Kusunagi, for instance, is no katana blade, but a more primitive type of sword. The narrative, suggesting the government is being twisted out of shape by a malign and prejudice-mongering set of usurpers, has its own suggestive aspect. Inagaki’s fondness for conflicted, down-to-earth protagonists manifests as he  remakes the aristocratic titan as a figure striving to find self-control, a man who loves the company of his fellow soldiers, and struggles against creeping forces of prejudice and xenophobia he sees starting to infect Yamato under the repudiates the intermarriage ban. The ban sees his loyal lieutenant Yakumo (Kô Mishima) and his lover Azami (Kumi Mizuno), who has been mobbed and exiled by her people, forced to romance in secret until the Prince takes them under his wing.
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The Birth of Japan bears a notable relationship with Toho’s Godzilla (1954) and other kaiju eiga films, with two of that film’s most vital collaborators contributing to Inagaki’s film: the special effects provided by Eiji Tsuburaya and music by Akira Ifukube. The fascinating imagery of the opening depiction of the Heaven and Earth being created wield a majestic flavour although they maintain Inagaki’s stylised approach by retaining a look reminiscent of paintings and theatrical backdrops, swirling mists in the void giving way to boiling waters and thrusting rock piles, out of which are born cosmic entities. Tsuburaya’s effects work had a strong effect on fantastical styles in Japanese film and television. The beloved ‘70s Japanese TV take on Journey to the West, Monkey, which in dubbed versions would become the first exposure to Asian mythology and culture for a generation of young westerners, bore the influence strongly in its craggy, misty fantastical landscapes and ingenious effects. As he had touched on in his Musashi trilogy, Inagaki here becomes bolder in utilising anti-realistic set design and special effects to suggest the presence of the ethereal and a protoplasmic sense of reality becoming real. He rhymes the barren, protean landscape Izanami and Izanagi first tread upon and the volcanic pool where Takeru meets his end, blasted cradles of birth where new dimensions open up after deeds of creation and extermination.
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Takeru’s film journey includes the most famous episodes from his folklore, most particularly one in which he dresses as a serving girl to defeat his foes, an image beloved of classic ukiyo-e artists, an adventure in cross-dressing that fascinatingly serves the purpose of giving the hero a feminine side, a purposeful humiliation that liberates him from the dark and marauding side of his masculine character. The Prince is driven to such lengths after a successful sneak attack by the Kumasos’ warriors with flaming arrows kills many of his men, and gets his chance to strike back when the Kumasos and their people throw an orgiastic celebration in victory. Clad in a woman’s clothes, the Prince infiltrates the Kumasos’ fortress and gets close enough to stab the older brother to death. Inagaki extends the gender-bending joke when the Kumasos find the veild Takeru more attractive than one of the other maids. After slaying the older brother, Takeru and the young duel in a ferocious sword-fight, and after he wins the younger Kumaso bestows upon the Prince his new name and destiny. Takeru’s ploy here allows an otherwise bloodless conquest of the Kumaso territory, and he’s able to return home to his father. But he soon finds himself ordered on another perilous mission, and begins to despair of his father’s love and of ever gaining a safe footing in the world. Visiting his aunt, Princess Yamato-hime (Kinuyo Tanaka), who serves as High Priestess in a temple of the sun goddess Amaterasu, placates him by giving him Kusanagi, which she tells him his father sent to him to protect him. Takeru is cheered by this, although one of the Priestess’s shrine maidens, Princess Otohachibana (Yôko Tsukasa), realises she’s lying. Otohichibana and Takeru fall hopelessly in love with each-other, but cannot be married because of her religious vows.
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Whilst Takeru’s story unfolds, Inagaki returns at times to depictions of the gods and the ongoing making of the world, particularly the stately Amaterasu herself (Setsuko Hara) and her wild brother, god of sea and storms, Susanoo (Mifune again). Both gods are counted as ancestors of the first Emperor Jimmu and so of Takeru himself. Susanoo’s penchant for mean pranks culminates when he tosses a dead horse in the midst of Amaterasu’s circle of maidens who sew lengths of shimmering material that resemble the sun’s rays, accidentally killing one of the maidens. Offended and infuriated, Amaterasy retreats into a cave, taking the sun’s light and power with her and leaving everything in darkness, the Earth overrun by evil forces and the gods in heaven bored and fatigued. Trying to think of a way to lure Amaterasu out again, the gods eventually decide to throw a wild party, so the sun goddess will emerge to see what she’s missing. To stir laughter and high spirits, they get the goddess Uzume (Nobuko Otowa) to perform a saucy dance, whilst other gods make the mirror and jewel that will become two parts of the Imperial regalia to reflect Amaterasu’s reflection back at her when she looks out, to make her think another goddess is taking her place and make her jealous. The ruse works and the sun returns to the world. Susanoo, banished for making trouble, sucks all the water out of the world in his incessant bratty crying, but eventually gains control and begins wandering the Earth.
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Inagaki has Takeru’s aunt make the connection between Susanoo’s bratty lack of emotional control and Takeru’s tendency to feel sorry for himself, turning the film, after a fashion, into a tract on what we might now fashionably call toxic masculinity; the act of maturation is the process of gaining self-control and stoic virtues. As well as genealogy the divine vignettes are also a form of psychologising, contextualising Takeru as a man lost in the most complex and cruel world of humans by comparison to the outlandish passions and gifts of the gods, and also are explicitly presented as structures though which people communicate values and ideas as a common inheritance of parable. In the last vignette, Susanoo comes to a village where the inhabitants live in cringing fear of a monstrous, eight-headed dragon. The village chieftain Anazuchi (Akira Sera) and his wife explain that the monster has already eaten seven of their daughters, and only have left, Kushinada (Misa Uehara). Susanoo vows to protect her and transforms her into a comb, lodging her in his hair whilst he ventures out to do battle with the monster, which he baits into getting drunk with vats of sake. Attacking the woozy beast, Susanoo manages to pierce its stout tail repeatedly, bleeding it to death. As he hacks open the dragon, he finds the sword Kusanagi lodged in its flesh. Susanoo presented it as a present in apology to Amaterasu and married Kushinada.
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Susanoo’s duel with the dragon is the most colourfully visualised and familiarly fantastical sequence in the film, anticipating some of Harryhausen’s sequences like the battle with the Hydra in Jason and the Argonauts, although Tsuburaya’s puppetry effects for realising the dragon aren’t nearly as sophisticated as Harryhausen’s stop-motion work. The dragon does bear a strong resemblance of Tsubraya’s work animating the monstrous Gidorah in later Godzilla entries. The faintly comic-erotic touch of Susanoo transforming Kushinada and wearing her strikes a droll note before Ifukube’s music turns dark and momentous and Tsuburaya announces the monster’s arrival with a waterspout and rainstorm. The grotesquely wriggling beasts cleaves a path through the sea and arrives to sup greedily upon the vats of sake. Here Susanoo transforms himself, from lawless and chaotic figure to saviour and defender, whilst confronting the dragon, distinguishing divine order from the primal terrors unleashed by Amaterasu’s retreat and giving new moral form to the world. Takeru mimics his evolution as he tries to forge new alliances and modes of diplomacy, but he finds his reputation hard to shake. When he’s visited by an envoy of the Owari, Princess Miyazu (Kyôko Kagawa), she, fearful for her aged and crippled father and their kingdom, tries to poison Takeru with poisoned sake – a subtle rhyme with the use of drink to disarm the dragon. Miyazu warns him off drinking it as she realises in listening to him that he’s a sane and decent man. Frustrate by Otohachibana’s hysterical repudiation of him, Takeru begins romancing Miyazu, but Otohachibana seeks him out on hearing of their impending nuptials, and this time succumb to profane passion.
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Ootomo’s sons and pretenders meanwhile visit a local warlord, Kurohiko (Jun Tazaki), and talk him into killing Takeru for them. Kurohiko’s fiefdom lies in the shadow of Mount Fuji, which Takeru has never seen before – Tsuburaya’s model version of the mountain depicts it before it blew its top off, smoking and smouldering with baleful rumblings. Kurohiko tries to kill Takeru when on a boar hunt in the grassy plains under the great mountain. Otohachibana pursues him to warn him, and they become trapped as Kurohiko’s men set fire to the grass, threatening to engulf the lovers. Takeru coins the magic sword’s name as he uses it to hack away the grass in a space surrounding them, to try and rob the fire of fuel. Takeru finds quickly the sword has the power to summon wind and turns the flames back on his enemies, allowing him to rejoin his warriors and slay Kurohiko, who vengefully tells Takeru that his father ordered his assassination. Fate claims is price as Takeru, his bride, and his army sail on their way to another mission only for a terrible storm to strike the fleet and threaten all aboard with destruction: Otohichibana realises that it’s punishment for her breaking her vows, and she throws herself into the ocean. Her sacrifices works, pacifying the storm, and Takeru stares into the water where she sank, which glows an eerie green. Heartbroken and wearied, he decides to take his men back to Yamato to let them see their loved ones and to beg for an end to his wandering, warlike exile.
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The most awkward aspect of The Birth of Japan is also its most interesting: the structure is made diffuse by the alternation of the main story of Yamato Takeru and the more archaic, symbolic myths, and try as they might, Inagaki and the screenwriters don’t always counterpoint them effectively. Aspects of the central story, whilst potentially as complex as Inagaki managed in the Musashi movies, don’t really go anywhere, like Takeru’s foiled relationship with Miyazu, who becomes the keeper of Kusunagi after the Prince gives it to her to protect. Mifune’s presence in the dual roles of Susanoo and Takeru does a lot to yoke the hemisphere together, however; although much less famed than Mifune’s collaborations with Kurosawa, his work with Inagaki is the definition of a great director-star collaboration, and The Birth of Japan depends greatly on the actor’s charisma and physical prowess as well as his ability to project emotional complexity in a role that might easily have been reduced to a heroic blank. Surrounding him is a startling survey of well-known actors, some, like Mifune’s costars from Kurosawa films like Shimura and Uehara, only appearing briefly if in totemic parts. Casting Hara, so often the lovelorn lovely at the heart of Yasujiro Ozu’s films, as the proud sun goddess has a faint quality of in-joke, whilst Tono, so often a great villain, makes you hate his conniving Ootomo with great efficiency. Inagaki’s scenes of battle and spectacle are superb, like the fight between Takeru and the younger Kumaso.
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And yet some of the film’s best moments are meditative, as when the Yamato warriors listen to one of the men playing a wistful flute under the shadow of the simmering Fuji, whilst Takeru and Otohichibana lounge in brief respite from their angst, a sequence in which Inagaki seems to be grasping directly at some kernel of folk-memory, his sense of a culture of musical performance as the truest connecting thread of his national sensibility. This is also the only time Inagaki makes a direct, present-tense correlation between the human and divine levels comes when he dissolves from Takeru and Otohichibana embracing in the night to the sight of Uzume dancing for the gods, signalling the accord of wistful, fleeting happiness and the role of the dancing goddess as the bringer of dawn, before the day brings its sad duties. The relative innocence and playfulness Inagaki emphasises in the anecdotes of the gods in their moments of vanity, savagery, silliness, and eventually heroism, moreover offsets the tendency of the human characters to take themselves too seriously. Even the sometimes awful Susanoo is an overgrown brat at first. Inagaki’s sense of the Shinto inheritance is essentially a joyous one, busy with characters who amass into an oddball community maintaining a pacific balance in the universe.
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Only the film’s very end suggests a truly solemn sense of spiritual awe, and that comes, perhaps meaningfully, when the offence to human and divine order finally stirs cosmic wrath. Upon returning to Yamato, Takeru and his men decide to leave again and continue with their peace-making quest rather than stir up trouble at home. But the Ootomos lead out an army to meet them, pretending to be a friendly welcoming committee, before attacking in treacherous fashion, sparking a bloody battle on the hills of Yamato that rages until only Takeru and Yakumo are left. The final eruption of violent chaos makes a mockery of Takeru’s peacemaking plans but also provides his warrior crew with their moment of sacrificial grandeur, as his men link arms and form a human chain to protect their leader from arrows that skewer them instead. Takeru meanwhile fights to save Yakumo so he can get home to Azami, ripping paths through the Ootomo warriors. Yakumo manages to escape after slaying a few pursuers, whilst Takeru crawls on his hands and knees to a pool on a mountain peak to drink, only for lurking archers to riddle him from afar with shafts. The slaying of Takeru’s mortal form sees his soul emerge as a white bird that flies high above Yamato and unleashing a deus-ex-machina spectacle.
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A volcanic eruption spews rivers of lava and cracks the ground, swallowing up the Ootomo forces, and the survivors who make it down to the shoreline are washed away by tsunamis crashing upon the land. It’s a tremendous finale, courtesy of Tsuburaya’s technical ebullience as he plainly tries to match the parting of the Red Sea scene in The Ten Commandments, delivering the villains their comeuppance on a grand scale. But it’s also a purposeful invention by the filmmakers appended to Takeru’s legend, turning him from victim of hubris into the spirit of justice, with a reverent attitude to the instability of the Japanese landscape itself, trapped between peaks that unleash hellfire and oceans that swell and crash, not seen as mere natural chaos but as a different kind of order, evoking the state of existence for the humans who dwell between the consuming extremes of their own natures. Takeru is reborn as exemplar for the citizens of Yamato. Ifukube’s career-best work might be found here, too, as he avoids the usual clichés of epic scoring, instead filling the soundtrack with a soaring chorus both eerie and majestic at once, signifying the spiritual power behind the surface chaos, before the white bird wings its way to heaven, glimpsed amidst sun-stroked clouds.