Friday, October 31, 2008

REVIEW: Basara: Princess Goh - Hiroshi Teshigahara (1992)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

If one were to try to sum up Hiroshi Teshigahara's over 30 year career in filmmaking one would most likely categorize him as one of the most important directors of that loosely lumped group, the Japanese New Wave. Along with filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura and Masahiro Shinoda Teshigahara contributed some of the most avant-garde films to the Japanese cinema canon. This was in no small part to his close collaborations with author Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu on three of his boldest (and best known) films 1962's "Pitfall", 1964's "Woman in the Dunes" and 1966's "The Face of Another". So that being said you'd think that the last kind of film that Teshigahara would make would be a traditional jidai-geki drama, but that's exactly what he did in 1992 with "Basara: Princess Goh"; and what makes this choice even more puzzling is that the last kind of film that you'd think Teshigahara would make would end up being his very last film.

A sequel of sorts to his 1989 film "Rikyu" about the 16th-century tea ceremony master, Sen no Rikyū, the story of "Basara: Princess Goh" picks up in Kyoto just after the death of Rikyū who had been ordered by his master, the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi to commit ritual suicide after a professional and personal falling out. The place of court tea ceremony master has been replaced by Rikyū's protégé, Furuta Oribe (Tatsuya Nakadai) who while adjusting to his new role crosses paths with Goh (Rie Miyazawa), a beautiful but tomboy-ish princess who would rather spend her time practicing archery and galloping around on horseback than learn the dainty art of the tea ceremony. Trouble enters the lives of Oribe, Goh and Goh's handsome gardner (and secret lover) Usu (Toshiya Nagasawa) after it is discovered that the head of Rikyū has been put on display as a warning to anyone who would think to question Toyotomi's authority. Goh and Usu secretly steal the head and return it to Rikyū's grave, an offence that has Oribe covering for the brash young princess and Usu being forced to go into hiding in the forests outside of the capital. It's only many years later that these three are brought together again on the estate of Toyotomi's allies the Maeda clan where the now more mature, and somehow even more beautiful, Princess Goh is living. The fire of Goh's youth is rekindled, though, after she takes in a mysterious mountain man who turns out to be her old love Usu, and after she chooses Oribe, who is now in the employ of Toyotomi's rival, Tokugawa Ieyasu, to lead an important tea ceremony on the Maeda estate.

I say that "Basara: Princess Goh" is a sequel of sorts to "Rikyu" because in its mood and pacing it is very different from its predecessor. "Basara" is very much a traditional historic drama, filled with lush costumes and sets and the occasional drawn katana to add some excitement, a more importantly a film without the same artistic pretensions that defined Teshigahara's exploration of the Japanese tea ceremony in "Rikyu". There are also some strange casting choices. It's not always easy to secure the same actors for a sequel so Katsuhiro Oida steps in as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, portraying the man who unified Japan as being much more stayed and regal than the blustery, maniacal and much more entertaining Toyotomi created by Tsutomu Yamazaki in "Rikyu"; but the choice of replacement actors isn't so puzzling as the actor who does return. Renatro Mikuni, who played Rikyū in Teshigahara's 1989 film returns in "Basara", but playing a different role, the woodsman who takes Usu under his wing after he's exiled into the wilderness. Having Mikuni in any film is a treat, but to have him show up as a supporting character after playing the lead in "Rikyu" initially jerks the viewer out of the experience of the film.

Besides those odd choices the remaining cast is really enjoyable to watch. Nakadai brings his usual screen presence and Rie Miyazawa, only 19 at the time and still making waves after her 1991 nude photo book scandal, handles the difficulty of playing both a young girl and a grown women quite well. On the whole "Basara: Princess Goh" is a very good jidai-geki film, just as good as anything by a Hideo Gosha or Yoji Yamada, but this is Hiroshi Teshigahara. Not to say that Gosha or Yamada are somehow lesser directors, just very different from a filmmaker like Teshigahara. Besides some loving shots of Oribe and Goh working on pottery you'd be hard pressed to distinguish this film from any other historical drama, which is fine if that is what you're in the mood for, but if you're looking for something on par with Teshigahara's early experimental works then you may be disappointed.

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