Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Jirokichi the Rat, or Nezumi-Kozo (Kid Rat) was one of the most famous (or notorious) criminals in Japanese history. Although he spent his days as a volunteer fireman at night he’d transform into a cat burglar par excellence, breaking into and emptying out the estates of high ranking lords and samurai in Edo (Tokyo). Between 1817 and 1832 he claimed to have burgled over 100 estates and estimated taking in a combined haul of 30,000 ryo (the rough equivalent of 1.5 million dollars today). Even though he was eventually beheaded for his crimes the common folk thought of him as a hero, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor like our own Robin Hood, although there was never any actual proof that he funneled his booty to anyone other than his many wives (apparently he was a polygamist). His story has been related in dozens of plays, stories, songs and of course films, one of the most famous being Daisuke Ito’s 1931 silent film “Oatsurae Jirokichi goshi (Jirokichi the Rat)”
The story starts with Jirokichi as a stowaway escaping from Tokyo on a boat filled with low lifes, one of whom, a prostitute named O-sen quickly falls for our hero. After some good old fashioned jidai-geki swordplay he makes his way to Osaka where he becomes infatutated with a poor girl named O-Kino, leaving O-sen to spend the rest of the film to work behind the scenes pining for Jirokichi. It turns out that O-Kino is so impoverished because her samurai family had been ruined after their estate had been cleaned out by a burgler. Guess who? Jirokichi must make things right before O-Kino’s brother hatches his own nefarious plan to get back some of the families money which unfortunately involves his sister.
Denjirô Ôkôchi who later starred in such early Akira Kurosawa films as “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail” and “No Regrets for Our Youth” plays Jirokichi as all square jaw and steely eyes, sneaking around corners and slipping away from police, but for a thief who was rumored to have ninja skills and who would release bags of rats into the attics of his victims houses to mask the sound of his feet it was a bit disappointing that sneaking and slipping away is all Ito chose to show us. Regardless of this Ito does use some interesting editing during his action scenes. In the middle of swordfight he’ll cut to a chattering monkey or at the climax of the film to a close up shot of a taeko drum being pounded as a very effective way to build tension.
Now as an aside, it might seem strange that in a year that saw the release of such films as Greta Garbo’s “Mata Hari”, James Cagney’s “The Public Enemy” and both original “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” movies that silent films were still being made, but even though director Daisuke Ito was nicknamed “Mr. I Love Pan Shots” for his love of modern film techniques sound was something that came quite late to cinemas in Japan. Much like the chorus in a noh, kabuki or bunraku play the stories were narrated by performers called “benshi”. Standing at the side of the screen they would provide voices for the characters and annotations to the film, and it wasn’t until the mid-30’s that this tradition began to be replaced by motion pictures with sound. And that’s your history lesson for this week…