REVIEW: Tengu Hikyaku (1949)

Itinerant runner Chota (Utaemon Ichikawa) takes up a job delivering letters for an Edo period courier company. He immediately falls in love with the owner’s daughter – the lovely Oshun. Romance must wait, however, as a plague strikes the village while a mysterious thief continues to elude capture. Soon Chota becomes prime suspect, and is forced to clear his name.

Tengu are supernatural creatures, resembling both humans and birds, and typically with very long noses. Meanwhile the hikyaku were special couriers who relayed urgent letters and messages in feudal Japan, originally during the Kamakura Shogunate of the 12th to 14th centuries and from then on through to the 19th – when foreign technologies introduced to Japan made them redundant. Rather than ride horses they ran on foot, often travelling great distances in remarkable short time frames. The hikyaku business for which Chota works uses a drawing of a tengu as its logo, hence the title Tengu Hikyaku: sometimes translated into English as Goblin Courier.

Santaro Mirune’s Tengu Hikyaku is a light-hearted action comedy for all ages. Produced by Japanese studio Daiei in 1949, what it lacks in technique it makes up for in terms of sheer good fun. With its period setting it fits comfortably into the jidaigeki genre of films, but this is no dour tale of samurai or nobles. This is working class medieval Japan: a small village, and a small domestic scale to match. Matters are overseen by a local police chief, while rival delivery employees snipe at one another at the local tavern.

This is properly old-fashioned Japanese cinema, lacking either the formal discipline of Mizoguchi or Ozu, or the strong American influenced style of Kurosawa. It presents a fairly obvious theatrical influence, with stock characters often performing stylised and comedic movements in unison for comedic effect. The humour is broad and straight-forward, while the action never rises to any genuine level of threat or tension. It is a relatively short feature as well, running a scant 77 minutes and never threatening to outstay its welcome.

Star Utaemon Ichikawa delivers a wonderfully funny lead performance, with his stocky build and round features belying his character’s unrivalled running speed. Considered one of the ‘six great jideageki stars’, he came to cinema from the kabuki theatre. Meanwhile Chieko Soma delivers an earnest and idealised Oshun; there is no room for subtlety or variation in Mirune’s film and the majority of characters are very broadly drawn. Japanese cinema fans will be quick to recognise Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura as local police chief Kunai. His stiff serious demeanour hides some excellent comic timing.

Tengu Hikyaku is not one of the widely heralded classics of Japanese cinema, nor should it be. It is what it is: an entertaining family comedy with laughs, well-rounded characters, and a fast-paced plot. There’s no pretension here, nor any need for international viewers to have an extensive understanding of Japanese history and culture. It is simply good fun; and there is always a place in filmmaking for that.

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