Monday, October 5, 2009

A look back at "The Birth of Japan"

by Chris MaGee

Here in North America we're used to growing up with Biblical epics like "The Ten Commandments" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told", but to find a Japanese equivalent to these big budget/ big stars classics is a little difficult. Obviously Japan's religious heritage is split between Shintoism and Buddhism, not Christianity so at first glance it would appear you'd have to go digging pretty deep for a film that covers roughly the same genre territory. On a recent jaunt through YouTube though I tracked down the trailer for the closest you're going to get to these Biblical epics in Japan, Toho's 1959 chronicle of Prince Yamato Takeru, the son of the mythical Keikō-tennō, the 12th Emperor of Japan, "Nippon Tanjyo (The Birth of Japan)".

Yamato Takeru, "The Brave of Yamato", said to have lived in the 4th-century killed his own brother and then was shuttled throughout Japan by his father the Emperor in the hopes that he would be killed in battle. The only problem was that Yamato Takeru was one tough fella and no matter what kind of foe he came up against he eneded up triumphing over them. He ended up receiving the magical sword, Kusanagi no tsurugi, which was believed to have dated back to the time of the gods, conquered even more foes and then died in Ise Prefecture after being cursed by the gods - at least that's my Coles Notes version of his story.

To get the full story on this mythical hero director Hiroshi Inagaki, screenwriters Ryuzo Kikushima and Toshio Yasumi brought his story to teh screen and had none other than Toshiro Mifune portray him, but the big casting didn't end there. "Nippon Tanjyo" had an all-star cast that included Takashi Shimura, Kinuyo Tanaka, Ganjiro Nakamura, Haruko Sugimura Daisuke Sato and even Setsuko Hara as Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess.

"Nippon Tanjyo" is epic filmmaking on steroids. To see what I mean check out this trailer. Hopefully this one will show up on these shores at some point from the likes of AnimEigo, who have really been working overtime lately bringing forgotten or rare Japanese classics to Region 1 DVD (nudge, nudge, hint, hint, AnimEigo...)

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