Orochi, AKA The Serpent, is an unforgettably modern Japanese film from 1925. It combines a grim vision of a society rendered dysfunctional by feudalism, a portrait of one man’s existential crisis and yes, some fast and very furious swordfighting action.
This is a transitional film, coming between the early samurai films, which were more sedate and used the techniques of kabuki theatre, including heavy makeup and benshi narration, and the later style of samurai film, the chambara films, heavy on swordfighting action, that would become so popular in in the middle of the 20th century. The fight sequences in this film are often so frenetic that you can barely see how much is going on. And yet, this film is an action film with a rare degree of realism.
Orochi centres in an antihero, Kuritomi, played by Tsumasaburo Bando, who was known as Bantsuma. He starts the film as a loyal samurai, albeit one from a lower social class. This was certainly unusual in Japanese cinema of the time. However, when he is provoked he swiftly becomes violent, and that is where the trouble starts.
Bantsuma was one of the most acclaimed actors in Japanese silent films, and you see him here at the height of his fame in probably his most well-loved film. He started out in kabuki theatre, but was not very successful. He really found his niche when he entered the film world and he excelled in anarchic, action-packed films such as Orochi. He was known as ‘The King of Swordfights’, and yet there was far more to his performances than just spectacular violence. Bantsuma talked very movingly about his acting, saying that the life of an artist is to die for art and that when he played characters like the one he does in this film, who suffer deeply, he too suffered deeply. He inhabited his characters fully and immersed himself into each role. Sounds a lot like Method acting. You can see this dedication in his deeply committed performance in Orochi.
This film is justly celebrated for its epic action scenes, as well as for director Buntaro Futagawa’s furious edits, incredible tracking shots and close-ups. This film is incredibly rich cinematically and offers a fantastic spectacle as well as a critique of Japanese society. The opening lines of the film are very famous, lines that certainly resonate in 2022. “Not all those who wear the name of villain, are truly evil men. Not all those who are respected as noble men, are worthy of the name. Many are those who wear a false mask of benevolence to hide their treachery and the wickedness of their true selves.” Some problems are eternal. This film is about an outsider struggling to find his place a highly ordered, hierarchical society – and paying the price for being so ill at ease.
Orochi was the second film to be made by Bantsuma’s own studio, the creation of which is a testament to what a popular star he was. Especially that he could make a film that was so contentious. Orochi was made towards the end of the Taisho era, which came to an end a year later in 1926, a time of modernisation and democratisation in Japan, but also a time of rising military and nationalist fervour. Liberal ideas were under attack and Orochi, which is certainly progressive in its view of the existing power structures, proved very controversial. It was heavily cut by the authorities – more than 20% was taken out – and the film’s original name, The Outlaw, had to be changed to The Serpent, which was meant to imply a critique of the hero rather than the wider society. In fact it refers to Banstuma’s agile moves when he fights and the terror his character inspires.
Bantsuma’s star power and the sensation caused by the film’s political stance combined to make Orochi a huge hit in Japan, despite the cuts. It is well thought of still, and the ending is particularly celebrated. Suffice it to say that this film climaxes with a spectacular fight scene, but more than that, it offers proof of Kuritomi’s nobility, bravery and tragic destiny.