#15 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
Kobayashi continues his combination of social commentary with the remnants of his early melodramatic and dramatic work in Inn of Evil, a tale of a group of criminals at the lowest end of corruption in a corrupt society needing to deal with conflict from every side. I think it’s also Kobayashi’s most obvious film in a while, limiting its thematic impact, while a certain character moment ends up feeling a bit off and unbelievable undermining the character journey at the same time. And yet, there are moments of wonderfully isolated emotional resonance, especially late in the film, and we get some quality action by the end as was Kobayashi’s wont in this style of film he worked in like Harakiri or Samurai Rebellion. I think it’s one of his lesser works, but there’s entertainment to be had still.
In a less populated part of Edo is a small island in a river. On this island stands a single structure, the Easy Tavern owned by Ikuzo (Kan’emon Nakamura) who has a small gang of criminals led by Sadashichi the Indifferent (Tatsuya Nakadai, returning to a performance more in line with his in Yojimbo) as well as his daughter Omitsu (Komaki Kurihara). The police will not do any work on this island, leaving them alone completely, because it is known that Ikuzo and some of the powerful families and merchants in the area have an arrangement where Ikuzo’s men deal with the smuggling in of forbidden goods from forbidden ships for them. A new police officer Kaneko (Shigeru Koyama) has different plans, though. One night, unexpectedly, two men come running over the single bridge onto the island, fighting each other to the death and collapsing behind Sadashichi, injured but protected from Kaneko who was in pursuit. These two men are Tomijiro (Kei Yamamoto) and Gonroku, and their stories get told a bit later after they recover a bit from their injuries.
In the meantime, we get to know the residents of the Easy Tavern, most particularly Sadashichi whom Ikuzo describes as having a kind of mental illness that sets him apart from society, and society’s resistance to him ends up making him violent. At least at Easy Tavern, he explains to Kaneko, he can be directed. They’re lost souls, and the core of the thematic point of it is that they are the bottom rung of a corrupt ladder. When the straight and narrow Kaneko comes to the area to clean things up, he aims for the smugglers, not the men paying the smugglers. Is this fair? Well, it doesn’t really matter because it is happening, and the increased attention is putting Ikuzo and Sadashichi off of the proposed job from the rich merchant’s representative completely.
And then we get Tomijiro’s tale. He was an indentured servant with a love interest who worked for another family until her father decided to sell her to a brothel. He stole his set aside wages of 15 ryo and set out to find her, squandering it all in pursuit of Gonroku, the man who purchased her. It’s this tale that suddenly convinces Sadashichi and the other men to take on the dangerous job, and it’s the leap that I’m not quite willing to accept. They’re established as rather self-centered men with a large sense of reticence around any job after two of their men died in their last job, and their sudden acceptance of all the risk to do a job that they will offer all the reward to Tomijiro to afterwards seems a bit thin.
The job goes forward, things go wrong, and the four men who went on the job either die or disappear, including Sadashichi. Tomijiro, after a moment of potential release as he grows easier with his situation and the potential to save his lady, helps around the tavern, but the failure of the smuggling operation sends him into desperation again. Gonroku, who keeps coming to the Easy Tavern every night to get drunk without anywhere to seemingly go, obviously has a large amount of cash on him, and Tomijiro decides to kill and rob him for the money. The scene between Gonroku and Tomijiro ends up one of the most heartbreaking moments in any film in Kobayashi’s body of work. It’s beautiful and sad.
The finale action scene plays out, and we get a small coda as Tomijiro and his girl visit the now empty Easy Tavern followed by onscreen text saying “We have died for nothing.” That’s a bit of nihilism to end a film where something actually was gained, but it also recontextualizes the action of the film to cast it more in the light of the “victories” in both Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion. The lowest rungs of a criminal conspiracy were wiped out while the upper rungs, the ones actually pushing the buttons to make things happen. The fight was directly because the police wanted to stop smuggling, but as Ikuzo says, if they don’t do the smuggling, then someone else will. It’s really part and parcel with The Thick-Walled Room and Hymn to a Tired Man where the upper echelons of power were receiving smaller punishments than those beneath them.
I can imagine one more rewrite of this script that would have pushed it from lesser-Kobayashi into the higher tier of his work. I think the early emphasis on Sadashichi’s mental state makes the character change halfway through less believable than it needs to be. Also, Ikuzo ends up with a fair amount of dialogue, especially with Kaneko that makes the point of the film a little on the nose. Beyond those smallish issues, which are pretty relegated to the first act, this is still a quality entertainment. The equating of the small sparrow hatchling that Sadashichi nurses and then loses is the kind of more subtle thing that helps provide all the subtext that the film really needs, and that scene with Gonroku near the end is wonderful.
So, it’s not Kobayashi’s best work, but it’s still solidly good.