About a dozen years ago film societies in America and Britain began discovering and rediscovering the work of Japanese filmmakers of the 1960s and '70s whose films had been dismissed or ignored altogether when they were new. The American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, for example, has held annual retrospectives of these "Outlaw Masters," though this reviewer dislikes that term. It implies that the filmmakers honored in these festivals - Kinji Fukasaku, Seijun Suzuki, Tai Kato, Kihachi Okamoro, Kenji Mizumi and others - were making nothing but subversive films way outside the mainstream when that was rarely the case. Though a few of these reexamined directors, notably Koji Wakamatsu, really were outsiders, most spent the bulk of their career, including the much-overrated "maverick" Seijun Suzuki, making mainstream program pictures for their studios.
The impact of these festivals has been huge. The oeuvre of Fukasaku and Suzuki especially has shot up exponentially in the eyes of critics, and in terms of availability on DVD they've leapfrogged ahead of master filmmakers whose work remains largely ignored in the west: Mikio Naruse, Susumu Hani, Keisuke Kinoshita, and the early works of Kon Ichikawa and Kaneto Shindo, to name just a few. (This is not to say the filmmakers being honored aren't worthy - just that the emphasis has become rather skewered toward chanbara and yakuza/crime thriller while ignoring other kinds of movies and filmmakers.)
One director honored at these retrospectives who has yet to find the wider audience he deserves in the west is Hideo Gosha (1929-1992). In a class by himself, Gosha's films were often set in the same chanbara / yakuza / anti-hero worlds of Suzuki, but Gosha's films are far classier, with superior screenplays richer in characterizations brought to life with better actors and performances, stronger stories, and told with a strong visual style that's both more historically accurate while serving the film instead of simply drawing attention to itself.
His films come closer in spirit to Kurosawa's brooding period films than they resemble, for instance, the raw, chaotic work of Fukasaku. He's been compared to Western filmmakers like John Ford, and one of his best works, 1979's Hunter in the Dark is structurally similar to and has the sweep of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather.
Goyokin (1969) is a fine example of Gosha's style. Though Criterion has released Gosha's second film to DVD, Sword of the Beast (Kedamono no ken, 1965), it was really around the time of Goyokin that his unique style began to emerge.
In Goyokin, after five years of indentured service Oriha (Ruriko Asaoka) returns home to her remote, northern fishing village in Tohoku to find it completely deserted and its 30-odd residents inexplicably have vanished. It's gradually revealed that a ship navigating around the hazardous peninsula and transporting gold had crashed into the rocks, and that Sabai Chief Retainer Tatewaki (Tetsuro Tamba) ordered the villagers to salvage the gold, only to murder them en masse to keep the theft secret. One of Tatewaki's samurai, brother-in-law Magobei (Tatsuya Nakadai), feeling betrayed over the unexpected murders - he was told the fisherman would be rewarded for their labors - leaves the clan and becomes a ronin, sadly leaving wife Shino (Yoko Tsukasa, with historically correct blackened-teeth) to her brother. Three years pass, and Magobei is reduced to displaying his swordplay skills in Hirosuke's (Kunie Tanaka) Edo-based medicine show.
When a samurai coveting Shino's affections, Kunai (Isao Natsuyagi), orders Magobei's assassination, this inadvertently alerts him of Tatewaki's plans to steal another ship's gold and sacrifice yet another fishing village to aid the financially-strapped clan. Outraged, Magobei decides to return to Sabei, and along the way crosses paths with Oriha, whose life has been ruined by the tragedy. The pair also encounters Samon Fujimaki (Kinnosuke Nakamura), a mysterious figure intent on aiding Magobei in his mission.
Goyokin is a terrific film that's impressive on many levels. It makes superb use of its northern Tohoku locales, principally the Shimokita Peninsula. The juxtaposition of the rough waters crashing into its snow-covered beaches while swarms of black crows await the outcome of the bloody battles is visually stupendous. The setting is both unusual and Gosha, like Kurosawa, seems to have been stickler for historical accuracy, resulting in a film that at least makes the impression that it's authentic to both its time and place.
Though Nakadai's unblinking ronin - those saucer eyes that stare outward but seem to be gazing inward at his own soul - plays to the familiar persona in which the actor seemed to specialize in such films, but his character's relationship with wife Shino is exceptionally nuanced, and longtime Toho actress, Tsukasa, so good in Masaki Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion (1967) delivers an enormously sympathetic performance. Asaoka is also very good; her transformation (and believable terror) in the tour-de-force opening sequence, impressively directed by Gosha, gives way to a tough-talking, alcoholic dice-thrower that's likewise believable and compelling.
(The actors all deserve points for enduring what must have been bitterly cold locations, they dressed in drafty period costumes and often seen clamoring over icy rocks and the like.)
Throughout the film, Gosha finds inventive ways to stage action (one scene involving a captured Nakadai is extremely clever), confidently taking his time to ensure that his audience understands the subtleties of what's going on, and again like Kurosawa choreographs scenes so that we understand the geography and where characters are supposed to be in relation to one another (e.g., Tatewaki's strategy to get the gold-carrying ship to crash into the rocks).
Other aspects of the production are flawless, from Kozo Okazaki's stunning cinematography to Masaru Sato's superb score (where's the soundtrack album?).
The film seems to have been a happy collision of talent from several different sources. It was a co-production between Tokyo Eiga (a division of Toho) and Fuji Television, where Gosha was under contract at the time. Most of the actors where free-lancers, though Asaoka had for years been under contract at Nikkatsu, and Natsuyagi was borrowed from Toei. The success of this and other all-star productions of the late-1960s would lead to more of the same in 1970-71, often various combinations of Nakamura, Asaoka, Toshiro Mifune, Shintaro Katsu, and Shintaro Ishihara, but none would match the greatness of Goyokin.
(Toshiro Mifune was originally cast as Samon, but after several weeks of filming suddenly dropped out, reportedly due to an ulcer and exhaustion. All scenes featuring the character had to be re-shot.)
Video & Audio
Goyokin was the first Japanese movie shot in Panavision (its logo is prominently displayed at the beginning of the film) and the 16:9 transfer here preserves its original screen shape. The image is okay though this reviewer remembers being flabbergasted by its sharpness at an American Cinematheque screening, where the 35mm print almost seemed to have the fine detail of a film shot in 65mm. (In Japan the production was billed as "70mm Panavision," but this presumably indicated only that some prints were blown-up from 35mm. This theatrical version did have a stereo soundtrack for sure, though this DVD is mono.) The image and colors are okay, but not notably different from other Japanese 'scope films of the late-1960s.
Some have objected to Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock's (optional) English subtitles, not without justification. The translation by Julia Rose and Anna Yamamoto is fairly direct, but it misses a lot of the nuances and slightly alters some of the dialogue. (In an early scene, Oriha cries out someone's name which instead is translated as "Ma," even though this doesn't appear to have been her mother's name but someone else entirely.) The worst offender is the absurd use of anachronistic slang. For example, "Matte!" ("Wait!") becomes "Hang on!" while "Kane no tamenara nanndemo suru" ("I'll do anything for [gold] money") becomes "I'll do anything for a buck." Not in early 19th century Japan they weren't.
None of this is ruinous, but it the use of modern slang is definitely distracting and should be dropped in future releases.
The only extra is a Trailer, also 16:9, that doesn't really sell the film as hard as it might, curiously treating it like an ordinary period film.
Despite those sometimes annoying subtitles, Goyokin is a must-see for all serious fans of Japanese cinema, especially those with an interest in samurai dramas. With the release of this and Sword of the Beast let's hope that more Gosha will be in the offing.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.