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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: Jul 13, 2023

How Yamanaka’s Million Ryo Pot Made Japanese Film History

Director: Sadao Yamanaka

Cast: Denjirô Ôkôchi, Kiyozu, Kunitaro Sawamura, Reisaburô Yamamoto

Related Films: Priest of Darkness, Humanity and Paper Balloons, Rashomon

Studio: Nikkatsu

Year: 1935

Verdict: 4/6


Introducing Sazen Tange and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo

Sometimes, what makes a Japanese classic is a matter of circumstance rather than brilliance. Sazen Tange and The Pot Worth a Million Ryo is far from flawless, but still impressive for its time. Its maker's story, his intentions for Japanese film, and his tragic passing during WWII makes it all the more interesting.

The Million Ryo Pot – which the film goes by these days – has many strong points. The cinematography, sets and costumes are terrific. Another highlight is Denjiro Okochi in the role as Sazen Tange. His crazed performance brings to mind Toshiro Mifune’s acts to come in Rashomon and Seven Samurai a few decades later.

The rest of the cast are far less convincing, and the humor is hit or miss throughout. Compared to Ozu’s and Mizoguchi’s films of the same era, Sazen Tange and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo lacks a personal touch, but the drama is sound enough to keep our attention till the end credits roll.

As for the film’s place in film history, there are two legacies at play which makes it noteworthy: One, the director was determined to revolutionize the Japanese film industry, and two, the protagonist of the story was an icon in Japanese fiction. Before diving into the specifics about the film, let’s look closer at the two legacies.

The Lost Legacy of Sadao Yamanaka

Before Yamanaka was drafted and died at the age of 29, he made 26 films in less than six years’ time. His life was not all that was lost in the war, though, also most of his films were destroyed. Only three remains, of which Sazen Tange and The Pot Worth a Million Ryo is the oldest one.

Yamanaka was known for being a film enthusiast, and his ambitions were certainly exciting. He mostly operated as an independent filmmaker, which is to say that he was not under the thumb the large studios in Japan. From this vantage point, he planned to revolutionize Japanese cinema by taking inspiration from Hollywood.

To achieve this goal, Yamanaka formed a film society called «Narutaki Group of Kyoto». Together with a handful of friends, he sought to modernize the jidaigeki (period drama) and liberate Japanese moviemakers from the ingrained film tendencies of their time.

Film critic Shigehiko Hasumi (president of the University of Tokyo) compared the Narutaki Group to the young and strong-willed filmmakers of the French New Wave. They were avid film lovers, they wanted to go against the trends, and they strongly disliked nationally coerced filmmaking.

Yamanaka barely got to start his revolution of Japanese cinema, and he did so by mixing film genres. In essence, he made a hodgepodge of historical drama, samurai swordplay, social commentary, and comedy. It was a commendable idea, which he never got to refine.

Watching Sazen Tange and The Pot Worth a Million Ryo with Yamanaka’s backstory in mind, we can easily see what he was trying to do. One can only speculate on what could have been if he had gotten to develop his ideas beyond the bland execution that weighed down The Million Ryo Pot.

The Lively Legacy of Tange Sazen

Tange Sazen was a beloved underdog character who first appeared in a serialized newspaper story in the Mainichi Shimbun from 1927-28. He was a one-armed, one-eyed, masterless samurai with a nihilistic outlook on life.

Initially, Tange Sazen was just a minor character. However, his popularity with the readership led to three film productions which were published only months after the story had run its course in the newspaper.

This led to another series in 1933, in which Tange Sazen turned into a heroic fighter of injustice. Following the second series was another slew of films about the character. By the late 1960s, there had been made more than 30 films about Tange Sazen.

Mark Shilling of The Japan Times said that Yamanaka’s Million Ryo Pot is considered to be the best of them all. Furthermore, Shilling argued that Yamanaka didn’t imitate Hollywood as much as he reimagined American filmmaking in his own original way.

It is hard to say which film succeeded best in doing the Tange Sazen-character justice, but Yamanaka’s version certainly became the most iconic of the lot. As mentioned, he did a great job with the visuals, which arguably made his film remembered to this day.

The Million Ryo Crock and Bull Story

As the title indicates, the story is about a pot worth a million ryo. Or rather, the pot has an inscription that tells the whereabouts of a lost and forgotten military emergency budget of a million ryo.

The pot initially belonged to the «highest lord of the land». Not knowing its true value, he gave the pot to his brother, Genzaburo. Genzaburo intended to regift the pot to the dojo that took him in and made him its leader.

As it turned out, Genzaburo’s wife disliked the pot so much that she sold it to a couple of scrap-dealers before he could give it to his dojo. Thereafter, the scrap-dealers gave the pot to a neighborhood kid, for him to keep goldfish in.

By some terrible coincidence, the kid suddenly became orphaned. His father was murdered by some bar brawlers at his favorite hangout, a bar belonging to a headstrong lady who also happened to be in a relationship with a certain one-eyed samurai.

Following the father’s death, the one-eyed samurai – Sazen Tange – seeks out the boy and ends up taking him in at the bar. All the while, the shogun’s henchmen, as well as Genzaburo, are scheming to get the million ryo pot back in their possession.

As such, the comic element is based on the entanglements between the characters who search for the pot. By the halfway point of the film, however, the talk of the pot takes second seat. Instead, the drama between the one-eyed ronin, his mistress, and their growing affection for the orphaned boy takes lead.

At this point, it becomes clear that Yamanaka still was bound by Japanese filmmaking conventions. The comic elements taken from American cinema are much less compelling than the typically Japanese jidaigeki-melodrama.

In other words, Yamanaka was onto something which he had yet to fully develop. Film researchers Donald Richie and Tadao Sato argued that Yamanaka’s ideas were a springboard for Japanese filmmakers thereafter. Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Suzuki followed in his footsteps to some degree, but his direct influence is hard to prove.

A Production that Missed its Target

We already mentioned the strong suits of Sazen Tange and The Pot Worth a Million Ryo, which is its design and visuals. The script, narrative, and comic timing leave something to be desired.

The story feels forced on many occasions. It’s as if the entire narrative is constructed to facilitate a few gags, which is not that funny to begin with. Also, the comedy becomes rather formulaic and predictable once the repetitive set-ups have been utilized a few times.

«But 30s comedy can’t be expected to have the same impact today» you might say. Considering Ozu’s comedies of the same decade, however, like I Was Born But… and Tokyo Chorus, the comic timing in The Million Ryo Pot pales in comparison.

The same can be said about the acting, but this is not such a big issue. The Million Ryo Pot is somewhat plagued by theatrical overacting, but somehow it fits the forced story and the clunky narrative well.

The fight sequences, the camera movement around the nice set pieces, and the rather excessive score also works well. At times, the bold orchestral music interrupts the storytelling, but for the most part Yamanaka used the score to the film’s advantage.

As for Shillings argument that Yamanaka reimagined Hollywood filmmaking in his own way, I would have to argue to the contrary. The brazen score and the repetitive comedy is like cut-and-paste from Hollywood comedies of the time.

The same goes for the abrupt cutting of someone refusing to do something, only to show them doing that exact thing in the next scene. The comic effect works well the first few times, but it wears off quickly when you see it coming from a mile away.

The juxtaposition of Hollywood traits and typical Japanese film style, such as static and low camera angling, is awkward at times. In some instances, it supports the comedy nicely, but the lacking consistency makes it clear that Yamanaka still had a ways to go before reaching his full potential.

Reading Into Pots and Plots | A One Ryo Mini-Analysis

The most interesting stories are in fact told between the lines of Sazen Tange and The Pot Worth a Million. An evident sociocultural comment comes to light from the display of unjust hierarchies in Japan.

The crocodile tears on the young boy’s cheek aren’t half as moving as the look of hopelessness in the eyes of the scrap-dealers whose home were invaded by samurai snobs. When suspected of having the priceless pot in their possession, their house is turned upside down without as much as a question beforehand.

The rather stress-free atmosphere in Edo is another interesting detail. Usually, portrayals of Tokyo lifestyle oscillate between breakneck pace and ruthless work environments. In The Million Ryo Pot, life is quiet, and its characters would rather unwind at the pub, than try to improve their life.

As such, between the lines, the film appears more realistic and humane. Its characters are of the kind that tends to not take lead in stories, the everyday forgettable souls who don’t make much of themselves. They are people who dream of fame and fortune, but aren’t willing to sacrifice comfort or leisure to get it.

In this sense, Yamanaka underlines that fortune and riches don’t really matter. Human connections and emotions are more valuable. As the story of the pot slowly fades out of focus, the relationship between Genzaburo and his wife, and between Sazen Tange, his mistress and the boy, takes over.

It might be subtle, but the saving grace of The Million Ryo Pot is its focus on flawed and relatable characters. None of them are perfect, they are not even perfectly portrayed by their actors. But their imperfections, emotional turmoil, and daily struggles remind us that living our life is more important than chasing pots of gold.

Links Between Sazen Tange, Toshiro Mifune and Hollywood

As mentioned, Denjiro Okochi’s performance almost feels like a precursor to Toshiro Mifune’s iconic samurai roles in the 50s. Whether Mifune took inspiration from Okochi or not is unknown, but he must have been aware of Okochi’s work since they worked in the same circles.

The two of them even appeared in the same films a couple of times in the 50s, around the time when Seven Samurai was made. In 1953, they both appeared in the war epic Eagle of the Pacific, by Ishirô Honda. And in 1957 both played in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Yagyû Secret Scrolls.

As for Yamanaka’s Hollywood influences, Chris Fujiwara at Moving Image Source appears to make an educated guess when suggesting the following films as examples: City Streets (1931, Rouben Mamoulian), Grand Hotel (1932, Edmund Goulding’s), and It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra).

In addition, Both Shigehiko Hasumi and Sybil Anne Thornton (author of «The Japanese Period Film») have pointed out Lady and Gent by Stephen Roberts (1932) as a source of inspiration for The Million Ryo Pot.

The story of a boxer and a barmaid taking care of a recently orphaned boy indeed seems to align with Yamanaka’s plot. As far as I know, however, he never declared these particular Hollywood films as his influences. That said, bearing the release date of this film and his intentions in mind, the parallels at least, are evident.

Final Verdict for The Million Ryo Pot

Sazen Tange and The Pot Worth a Million Ryo is an interesting watch for anyone interested in Japanese film history. Compared to the international filmmaking of its time, the standard was high. Compared to what was going on in 1930s Japanese filmmaking, however, it was just above average.

That said, there is something about The Million Ryo Pot that stands the test of time. It doesn’t always bring the laughs, nor the tears, but the cinematography, the Sazen Tange-character, Okochi’s performance, and Yamanaka’s backstory makes it noteworthy, nonetheless.

If you are new to Japanese film, there are better starting points than this. However, to explorers of Japanese film classics, it is well-worth tracking down. Perhaps not for the entertainment value, but for the circumstances of its production, Sazen Tange and The Pot Worth a Million Ryo deserves its place in Japanese film history.


Kotobank: Tange Sazen (In Japanese only)

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