Review: Matatabi

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

by Ken Eisler

I felt a funny kind of letdown when The Wanderers ended, and it took me awhile to figure out why. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the ending. After a fight, the film’s young protagonist Genta slips and tumbles down a long steep bank: a fall that begins comically but becomes by turns frightening because of an accelerating sense of the loss of control, and then, like Marie Dubois’ long snowy death fall in Shoot the Piano Player, strangely lyrical. Finally, with a thud, Genta’s head hits a rock: freezeframe, full stop. Up above, Genta’s pal Mokutaro slows down, turns around, and walks back along the road to the spot where he took off running, one arm bloodily slashed, the snarling, shouting, sword-wielding Genta in hot pursuit. Mokutaro looks around for his friend; calls his name repeatedly; shrugs. “Well,” he says aloud, “he must be taking a shit somewhere,” and the camera starts backing away from him, last of the three hapless young wanderers, alone in a wide screen landscape.

Nope, nothing wrong with this ending, nothing at all. Trouble is, I had this nagging sense of deprivation. It was all, suddenly, over, and Ichikawa had failed to introduce any major new characters along the way, people who might be, you know, more substantial—more … well, older. This lot, these three wanderers, for all their swordplay, for all their 24-carat suffering, why, they were just teenagers!

At which the penny, belatedly, dropped. The trappings of a mature samurai flick had distracted me from Ichikawa’s real subject here, which is no more, and no less, than Growing Up Absurd. Rural Japan, in the early 19th century, proves just as good a setting for this theme as Dawson High School (Rebel without a Cause) did in the early Fifties. Maybe even better, because, to a Western eye, more manifestly absurd. Ray’s youths rejecting their parents’ values, such as they were, sought refuge in peer values, in a code of valor symbolized by the absurd and wasteful “chickie run.” Ichikawa’s three wanderers appear just as confused and volatile as the James Dean character, as dimly unaware of themselves and their own motives. The society into which they were born is, like Jim’s, clearly breaking up. But they’ve attached themselves to someone else’s code, one that imposes traditional obligations. Like the masterless samurai of this time (the real pros), these kids—bumpkins, really, sons of peasants—owe absolute fealty, as “toseinin,” to whoever’s in charge of wherever they happen to get food and lodging for the night.

The movie opens with a long expository scene displaying the toseinin code in action. The three kids are shown, one by one, going through the rigid, repetitive series of words and gestures which the code requires host and wanderer to exchange. By the time Kid No.3 embarks on the ritual, we know it almost as well as they do; it’s ceased being exotic and has become grindingly dull. At just this point, luckily, something flickers across the host’s face. He looks away into another room, looks back, and says,. “Why don’t we drop all this?”

Nevertheless, it’s not all that easy to just “drop it,” and as the film progresses, we learn why. The Life, the arbitrary toseinin code, provides some sort of structure, at least, for these barely post-adolescent drifters. The surrounding society is one where money talks; where fathers sell their daughters to old men; where bosses and retainers unhesitatingly cross and doublecross each other for a brief taste of power.

The Wanderers‘ episodic structure echoes this aleatory social ambiance. It’s as if the three kids were touching a base every time they kneel once again before a host and launch into the unvarying host-toseinin ceremony. Ah, yes, two bowls of rice for each guest, exactly, that’s what the host must provide; it’s all there in the unwritten rule book. Furthermore: let’s say, here’s a place where the food really stinks. Though the wanderer is obliged as usual to consume two bowls, protocol also permits him simply to hollow out a space in the center of the noxious first portion before asking for a refill.

We see this reassuring code reduced to a blackly comic absurdity when the three fetch up at a truly appalling hovel and their grungy, mean, Mifune-fierce, unshaven “host” goes absolutely bananas because one of the three lads, in disgust, attempts to scant on the ceremonial formulae. A very rough punch-up is the reductio ad absurdum result of this breach of toseinin decorum. But the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of code-following in The Wanderers isn’t comic. One of the trio’s hosts requires Genta to kill his own father; and Genta accedes.

The next time we see Genta kneeling and exchanging ritual formalities with a prospective host (“My name is Genta, I come from the province of, etc.”), there has been an accretion: “I killed a man to be true to my code.” How orderly this sounds, how on top of everything, how very … Japanese. Yet what actually happened in the confused, grotesque parricide scene was that the boy, propelled forward by Mokutaro’s cry of “It’s the code!”, slashed at his scapegrace father and pursued him about the room while blurting out pent-up nuclear-family-type grievances going all the way back to his early childhood. In a brief, remarkable scene Genta subsequently grieves over his father’s laid-out body; and soon the trio’s picaresque doombent adventures resume.

Genta seems older and soberer, though, and ironically he begins now to experience paternal sorts of sorrow himself. Protective as he is toward the young peasant girl Okumi, whom he has assaulted and then invited along on the toseinin‘s journey, he winds up indenturing her as a B-girl at an inn and going away. Okumi, as disoriented and disenfranchised as himself, is used to being treated as chattel; her own father married her off to a crabbed old man. When he asks her, the morning after he rapes her, to join him, Genta seems more surprised at what he has just said than she is. She pauses, says yes; Genta recoils and asks her, in effect, are you some kind of nut? “Did you understand what I said?” he asks, peering into her face. Still, he sells her. There don’t seem to be any other options at that point in the story.

Familial relations here invariably prove bitter or, like the gross “motherhood” trip laid on Genta by the widow his father lives with, twice-bitter because merely travestied. When Genta returns to his native village to see what has become of this family since the father deserted, he learns that his mother has moved away, leaving the youngest son in the care of neighbors. This little boy (played by the redoubtable child actor Yosuke) comes around and recognizes Genta but refuses to acknowledge him. What he does, in fact, after staring implacably at his older brother for a few minutes, is to hurl a big stone at him, so hard that an ugly wound opens on the side of Genta’s head.

In another director’s hands, this sombre story could be depressing. In Ichikawa’s much of it is very funny. And it is shot through with beautiful, memorable images: striking

(Hokkaido?) landscapes, breathtakingly edited fight sequences (the first, particularly), subtle color harmonics. Through it all walk the three world-I-never-made young wanderers, their wide-brimmed inverted basket hats piling up an iconographic suggestiveness akin to, say, the “Indio” Fernandez’ mile-wide bandito sombreros in Mexican cowboy flicks, but of course—this being Ichikawa territory—quirkier, much quirkier.

MATATABI (The Wanderers)
Direction: Kon Ichikawa. Screenplay: Ichikawa, Shuntaru Tanigawa. Cinematography: Setsuo Kobayashi. Art direction: Yoshinobu Nishioka, Ryoichi Kamon. Music: Shitei Kuri, Yukio Asami.
The players: Ken’ichi Hagiwara, Ichiro Ogura, Isao Bito, Reiko Inoue, Toshimitsu Omiya, Tadao Futami.

© 1976 Ken Eisler

A pdf of the original issue can be found here