I’m tempted to like Batten just for its period setting, but most especially for its ultra-goofy hero — easily the most flamboyant creature of his kind since “Peter” minced across the screen in Funeral Procession of Roses. His name’s Tsubaki Seijurō and his outlandish dress and manner make him doubly a denizen of Yoshiwara, the “gay quarters” of Edo Japan. His occupation: tsukeuma (付け馬 / “attached horse”), which Kodansha’s Dictionary of Basic Japanese Idioms defines as a person who goes home from a bar or cabaret with a customer to collect money he owes. Said book also mentions its use in criminal slang as a (police) tail, which makes sense given that Seijuro spends about as much time righting wrongs of one kind or another as he does shaking down geisha’s patrons for juice.
Seijurō — or “Sei-san” as the Yoshiwara-ites call him — swathes himself in a ridiculously splashy geisha’s outfit, complete with hairpins and off-the-shoulder kimono, with a pipe always dangling from one corner of his mouth, a biwa hanging off to one side, and a sword concealed somewhere about his person. “The most fundamental tactic of a tsukeuma,” we are told, “is that they be as annoying as possible,” and Sei-san delights in being a royal pain in the ass to anyone who’s behind on their bar bills. From popular favorites played horribly to endless (if wholly innocent) flirting to surprising a client while he’s still in the sack, he knows all the ways to make his more straightlaced victims cave in.
Right in the first episode he’s sent to put the squeeze on a hapless samurai, Kanbei, who’s run up a huge debt with the girls. Kanbei is having no part of being harassed by this weirdo, but after fruitlessly questioning the other man’s masculinity (Sei-san wields a mean sword and has a “zanbatō” in his loincloth, har har) he learns a bit of a lesson about what a real man is. Turns out Kanbei’s daughter, Kaname, is being held as escrow until he can pay up, which is precisely the sort of thing that makes Sei-san fighting mad — mad enough to go and teach Kanbei’s tormentors a lesson with nothing more than the broken-off branch of a cherry tree. Kanbei doesn’t like the idea of being in debt to this freak, but he likes the idea of losing his daughter or his own life even less, and he finds himself in the position of being a comrade-in-arms to this cross-dressing cavalier.
Another character who thinks even less of Sei-san is Fujimaru, the cold-eyed young man who works in one of the red-light houses. He hates the place — hates its phoniness, its forced smiles, its unending repetition. He hates the fact that his sister Ritsuka is an oiran (top-rank courtesan) in Yoshiwara, and when one of the girls makes a run for it, he stabs Kanbei and challenges Sei-san to a duel to let the girl leave of her own accord. His skill with nothing more than a knife is remarkable, but Sei-san’s able to put one over him by simply using the handle of his own sword. “You need to kill a little bit less and laugh a little bit more,” the dandy admonishes him, and lugs the girl back into town.
Too bad Fujimaru can’t immediately honor that advice — at least not when there’s a wild-eyed madman stalking his sister and trying to kill her in broad daylight. Fujimaru saves the day by dressing up as one of Ritsuka’s attendants (he is apparently that cute) and interceding with his handy knife. Trouble is, the “madman” was apparently set up by a stone-cold killer in the service of the Shogunate, Yamada Asaemon. Asaemon’s cutting strokes are so precise that he can bisect a butterfly, a trick he uses as a calling card to put the fear into Sei-san and his friends.
The attitude and the incidental details work better than the overall story. I liked Fujimaru’s hurtful little speech about how you can’t see the stains on the sheets in the brothels until the morning light, and Sei-san himself steals every scene he’s in — yes, even when he’s suffering from an attack of diarrhea behind closed doors. But what plot there is seems mighty thin — just enough to keep things going, but not really enough to sustain momentum for a sizeable series. It is funnier than Blade of the Courtesans, though.