Edo period Japan. Kagemoto Toyama (Chiezo Kataoka), known to his friends as Kinshiro, is the son of a well-respected magistrate. Father and son don’t see eye to eye at all because Kinshiro has spent parts of his life mixing it up with the lower classes and clearly not seeing anything wrong with that. In fact, father and son don’t seem to have spoken to each other for a long time, and that won’t change during the course of the film.
Still, when first a carpenter is murdered during a public swimming performance, then a second carpenter is struck down right in front of Kinshiro’s eyes, and finally a female acquaintance of his is murdered because she just might have seen something during the first murder, Kinshiro takes it upon himself to investigate. And wouldn’t you know it, his ability to speak eye to eye with commoners and his willingness to relate to people based on their merit instead of their class turns out to be quite the useful tool in an investigation that – this being the sort of film it is – of course leads him on the trail of a conspiracy to kill the shogun. Just as useful will be Kinshiro’s friendship with wealth-redistributing thief Nezumi Kozo, his sword fighting skills, and his ability to go undercover as a mildly eccentric, prostitute-charming carpenter.
Falcon Magistrate’s hero Kagemoto Toyama is an actual historical figure that must have enticed the popular imagination quite a bit, because the historical magistrate (who was quite liberal for his time and class as far as I understand, but certainly not as awesome as the fictional version) turned into a fictional one popping up in all kinds of popular fiction, kabuki plays, TV shows and a six or eight part (depending on which English language source you believe) series of Toei movies starring the prestigious jidai geki specialist actor and charisma bomb Chiezo Kataoka, of which this is the first one.
Toyama as folklore and pop culture sees him is quite the fascinating expression of the dreams of a highly classist society. He’s a samurai who respects the peasant class and even identifies with its members, who speaks truth to power and has the power and influence himself to serve justice particularly against the villains of his own class, all the while transgressing class borders as if they were the social construct they actually are, a character who is not just willing to team up with a thief like Nezumi but also shows a degree of humorous appreciation for the man’s deeds, even though he’s tutting at them. Nezumi for his part is a parallel case to Kagemoto, also based on a historical figure that grew into something much bigger than the real man probably was. In his own cycle, Nezumi Kozo (which is a nick name that translates into Rat Boy or Young Rat, people who speak Japanese tell me) is generally sticking it to the man, spurning those in power for their sins and giving their money to the poor.
There is of course a bit of paternalistic noblesse oblige in the Toyama character, though the film at hand doesn’t go very far into this part of the character – too authentic are his interactions with the non-ruling class characters, and he’s never making fun of them, as you’d otherwise see when this approach goes wrong.These still are – however you look at it – quite subversive heroes in their folkloric incarnations.
Toyama does keep quite a bit of this aura in this movie version directed by Kinnosuke Fukada (about whose work I know basically nothing, alas), which might come as a bit of a surprise in a genre that at this point in time probably drew much of its pull from the power of nostalgia, the wish of a post-war country for a simpler and clearer time. At least, that’s the view of the genre the more rebellious jidai geki and chambara films of the 60s and beyond seem to have been working against. The more films of the era before this new wave I see, the more I’m inclined to say that’s a half truth at best, though, the younger directors in their Sturm und Drang underplaying those qualities of the earlier films they are actually continuing.
Of course, Magistrate Toyama is not all subversion all the time. This is after all film where the not exactly nice and progressive shogun is saved from revolutionaries; though these are revolutionaries of the kind who really don’t want to change anything about the order of things but only about who’s sitting on top. One of the film’s conspirators is also only driven to the deed because he’s convinced the shogun has tasked him with a costly construction project to ruin him; given precedents in actual Tokugawa shogunate history, he’s probably even right. The thing is, Toyama isn’t setting out to investigate a threat against the shogunate, he’s setting out to find the reason why three innocents are murdered, and just tenaciously follows through where this leads him.
On a stylistic level, Falcon Magistrate is a very typical Toei jidai geki/pulpy mystery film, with the high technical level and the extremely solid and dependable cast that suggests. While Fukada isn’t a great stylist, he keeps things moving nicely, finds time for a handful of moodily shot scenes, some minor yet satisfying sword fight set pieces, and does a very fine job with the film’s dramatic climax as well as a pleasantly short, to the point, and effective court room courtyard scene to tie things up. I suspect it’s the sort of genre movie everyone involved in Toei’s production machine could make in his sleep; it’s also very satisfying and enjoyable, if you care about the tales’ more subversive elements or not. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the joy of watching Chiezo Kataoka, at this point in time not looking like any sort of leading man you’d have found in a Hollywood film of the same era, but oozing easy charisma and a joy of living that makes him utterly believable as this particular folk hero.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?