A Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo is a highly entertaining
period piece from director Mikio Naruse, filmed in Kyoto during the
devastating final months of World War II. Much like Traveling Actors and The Song Lantern (with which the film forms something of a myth-obsessed triptych), A Tale of Archery feels very much at odds with the popularly accepted view of Naruse as a stasis-minded chronicler of the modern-day Japanese working class. Indeed, the director’s most frequent thematic obsession—the problems of money—is rarely, if ever mentioned in this trio of wartime works, which tend to focus more exclusively on a naïve or arrogant protagonist, typically an artist, who must prove himself worthy of his craft. In A Tale of Archery, young, timid bowmaster Kazuma (Akitake Kôno) seeks to beat the archery record set by Hoshino Kanzaemon, a mysterious figure who, it is rumored, drove the previous champion (Kazuma’s father) to suicide. Possessed of much raw talent, Kazuma is also very much a coward, holing himself up in an inn run by the kindly Okinu (Kinuyo Tanaka) and generally avoiding confrontation of any sort. Despite his clandestine manner, enough of the locals know of Kazuma’s purpose and an attempt is made on his life. He is saved by Karatsu Kanbei (Kazuo Hasegawa), a samurai who offers to help Kazuma hone his archery skills, though it soon becomes clear that this apparently selfless stranger has several potentially shady ulterior motives. Naruse films the archery scenes superbly, cutting them to a syncopated beat of drums (signifying hits) and cymbals (signaling misses), the aesthetic rhythm expertly building suspense while simultaneously relating and molding the characters’ psychological states. In part, A Tale of Archery can be read as a wartime antidote for the masses, though it’s ironic (yet somehow appropriate to Naruse’s typically pessimistic worldview) that the film was reportedly never released to the public. It’s possible, I suppose, to consider this relatively straightforward and lighthearted tale one of the director’s more mechanical works, though we should never deny the profound sense of pleasure an expertly crafted genre piece can provide. And to those who still wish for more, look no further than Kinuyo Tanaka who makes something soulful out of her seemingly inconsequential supporting role. In many ways the character of Okinu anticipates Naruse’s intent focus, post-Ginza Cosmetics, on his films’ female characters. In A Tale of Archery there’s a thrilling moment (and implied movement) where Naruse cuts between Kazuma shooting off an arrow and Okinu appearing in a mirror—the juxtaposition carries a sexual charge, but it also subtly shifts and balances out the film’s single-minded masculinity. It all comes full circle in A Tale of Archery‘s final sequence where Tanaka is granted the film’s last close-up and dialogue, a moment that plays as something of an awestruck precursor to Marlene Dietrich’s multilayered Touch of Evil précis.