Man of the House (1936)

Author: Miles Imhoff
July 12, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

... I'm Kumoemon Tochuken, b****!

Man of the House is a bit like the famous Rick James sketch, 68 years before it premiered on Chappelle's Show. A bombastic, me-centric musical personality tramples everyone in his path and does a fair bit of womanising in the process. One of my favourite actors from this time period, Ryunosuke Tsukigata (of Sanshiro Sugata and Sanshiro Sugata Part II fame), brings his signature screen presence to the table and chews the scenery in a way that only he can.

Around the turn of the century, famous rokyoku recitalist Kumoemon Tochuken is known for two things, his amazing performances and his scandalous ways with the ladies. Ever the frustrating focus of his long-suffering entourage, the strong-willed Tochuken threatens to bail on his upcoming show in Tokyo! As rumours abound about the true reason behind this alarming turn of events, Tochuken meets his estranged son from an ex-wife, although he fails to connect with the boy. Otsuma, Tochuken's current wife/shamisen player, attempts with futility to console young Sentaro, but as Otsuma's health fails and Tochuken takes on a new paramour, the lad begins to lash out at both his father and a world that doesn't understand him.

Before we continue, it should probably be made known that Kumoemon Tochuken was an actual person during the Meiji era. As such, I'd like to point out that my critique of the character is a treatise on the fictional Tochuken as portrayed in the film and not the historical figure upon whom he's based (in the same way, my lighthearted analogue to the Rick James sketch was a critique of the fictional James as portrayed by Dave Chappelle and not the actual singer).

When we see Kumoemon Tochuken up on the screen, we're not quite sure what to make of him. In many situations, he's an absolutely unpleasant protagonist who repulses the audience to such an extent that were the focus on anyone else in this film, he would almost certainly be declared the antagonist. It's heavily implied that he's taken several lovers over the years, is emotionally abusive to his wife, is verbally (and almost physically) abusive to his son, and is so unpredictable that everyone who relies on him is in a constant state of distress. He rationalises his poor decision making (especially in regard to his unfaithfulness) by declaring that many of his actions are necessary ingredients to his powerful performance.

Nevertheless, he has a host of traits which the majority of the audience can either relate to or at the very least enjoy to one extent or another. Despite the fact that his stubbornness is often a bane to those around him, his denial of an impromptu performance to local politicians makes for a rather enjoyable scene. His innocuous eccentricities act as a bit of comic relief, as well; an expensive taste for wooden gongs imported from India being one (apparently to remind him of his humble beginnings). His inebriation-induced purchase of a random parcel of land for 50000 yen (not as inexpensive a sum as you might think considering this was prior to the post-war inflationary period) makes for a bit of much-needed levity.

Despite his earlier proclivity toward rationalising bad behaviour, this character is actually very self-aware of his flaws. It's an interesting dichotomy between the super-arrogant Tochuken and the more vulnerable, humble Tochuken. This bit of dialogue sums it up well: "They try to see me as a perfect person because of my success. I just want to be a performer. I have nothing, and I’m full of fault. I've built up my performance through my shortcomings". As a Christian, it kind of reminds me of the hyper self-aware tax collector whom Jesus spoke of in Luke 18:13, "But the tax collector, standing at a distance, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but kept striking his breast, saying, 'O God, be merciful to me, the especially wicked sinner I am!' I tell you, this man went to his home forgiven". Genuine self-awareness is a trait lacking in many cinematic characters, and in one as especially difficult to warm up to like Tochuken, it's a refreshing bit of characterisation.

As I mentioned earlier, Ryunosuke Tsukigata as Tochuken simply devours the scenery, and very few of the other actors can even compare. The actresses who play Otsuma and Chidori, the actor who plays Sentaro, and the host of personalities who play various members of Tochuken's entourage are overwhelmingly overshadowed. No one else possesses even a modicum of the main character's screen presence, but the other rolls aren't particularly developed to rival that of Tochuken. Otsuma is the long-suffering wife (common for Japanese melodramas, but at least she doesn't try to commit suicide), Chidori is the unconcerned paramour basking in the novelty of her "unique" situation, and the entourage is comprised of the worried/apologetic personalities one would come to expect surround an individual like Tochuken. The character of Sentaro has a slightly thicker amount of depth compared to the others but only about as much as one would expect from a boy trying to preserve some semblance of stability and retain the "honour" of the family name. The actors and actresses do all right with what they're given, but their combined performance seems to be a perpetual state of melancholy/concern in regard to the motivations and exploits of Tochuken. The Japanese title of this movie, Tochuken Kumoemon, would be much more accurate were it renamed Tochuken Kumoemon! Tochuken Kumoemon!! Tochuken Kumoemon!!! This film loses a bit of its score in comparison to some of its contemporaries just because of the uneven emphasis on characters.

Music-wise, there aren't any particularly memorable pieces. The theme which the audience is treated to during the train ride has that sort of chugga chugga beat that cinema reflexively assigns as an onomatopoeic accompaniment to locomotive sequences. The melody that plays during the hunt is a similarly bouncy track that reflects the sunny, vibrant, and more lighthearted nature of a scene uncharacteristic of the overall atmosphere of this narrative. The kind of music that more accurately represents the sombre mood of this fictional biopic tends to play during the Otsuma scenes, and they're melancholy little numbers that reflect the sheer degree of sorrow that her character must endure more than anyone else. In the final scenes of the film, an unsettling, almost science fictiony piece brings us to the . Then there's the music produced by characters onscreen... when we do get a chance to witness Tochuken's performance, it does possess a certain magnitude of power that grips the audience; the filmmakers really manage to highlight the reason why their character of focus is so famous.

Ryunosuke Tsukigata carries this film. He's the one who makes you want to keep watching until the 73 minute mark. There really are no significant breakthroughs in any of the other acting performances, in the cinematography, in the storytelling, in the music, or practically any aspect of the medium. Nevertheless, Tsukigata sells you on his fictional portrayal of Kumoemon Tochuken. If you've ever had a chance to sample any of Ryunosuke Tsukigata's work and liked what you saw, let me assure that he cranks it up to eleven for this performance. It's a run-of-the-mill movie held aloft by an actor who is anything but run-of-the-mill. For that reason alone, I recommend this film.