Savant's grown a little leery of Samurai films, as so many have been released in the last four years that the less distinctive ones tend to blend together and clog the memory, like too many donuts. 1 The truly eye-opening swordplay sagas like Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion are few and far between.
A star from both of those films returns in Goyokin, another superior Samurai saga from a few years later. I have to say that I enjoy Tetsuya Nakadai's interpretation in these pictures more than I do Toshiro Mifune -- his suffering is more strongly felt, and when he takes calculated risks we're not as certain that he'll overcome his foes.
Goyokin is a solid bull's eye on all counts. It sets up an intriguing story about conflicting levels of duty and obligation that carry weight beyond feudal Japanese politics. Its Samurai opponents are played by big star talent, serious actors who bring gravity to genre characters usually conceived only in terms of style. It has a number of excellent, motivated action scenes. And it looks terrific, with deeply saturated hues and smartly-designed costumes and settings. Two major scenes take place in difficult locales -- a vast snowfield and a storm-tossed nighttime beach amid bonfires and avalanches of falling logs.
The original massacre has become a legend attributed to an evil spirit. Director Hideo Gosha uses massed crows to represent the 'haunting, to excellent effect. The main characters are soon tied together by their mutual relationship to the political situation that caused the massacre. A local fiefdom can't make its tax payments to the central authority, so they steal some of the central authority's gold, making it look like the shipment was lost at sea. To cover up the crime, the local fishermen forced to help in the operation are then murdered, "for the greater good." Stern soldier Tetsuro Tamba (Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice) thinks this dirty scheme is just another obligation one must perform when sworn to follow orders -- after all, what are a few lives compared to saving the district?
Disillusioned hero Tatsuya Nakadai didn't buy that logic all those years ago and is determined to fight it now. Injustice is injustice and the district chief hasn't the right to rationalize atrocious crimes in the name of the status quo; what he really wants is to retain his personal power. And it doesn't matter if things might be worse if a new government came in. The real crime is represented by Ruriko Asaoka's fallen woman, who returned to the village to be a bride and instead found herself a homeless vagrant, forced to become a cheating gambler. Nakadai's fight for justice is no solitary quest; it wouldn't succeed without loyal helpers like Asaoka to back him up.
Goyokin has a number of terrific set pieces, all framed for maximum dynamic impact by director Hideo Gosha, who appears to have spent most of his early career in the Samurai genre. He's a stylish storyteller. Unlike many progressive Samurai directors of the 70s, he doesn't seem overly influenced by the Spaghetti western ethos. His exciting compositions enhance the story but the characters are the content. When this one is over, everything falls into place, even our emotional state. The only thing that could make us feel better would be if Nakadai walked off into the sunset with the girl. But then it wouldn't be a real Samurai film, would it?
Savant knows the Media Blasters Tokyo Shock DVD line mostly through its recent run of Toho fantasy/Sci Fi pictures 2 but they also put out quality Samurai films like this excellent DVD rendition of Goyokin. The film is said to have been kept out of circulation for many years but the enhanced image is sharp and clean, with rich saturated colors. There are a few nicks and spots at the head of reels, and that's about it. This is Japan's first movie filmed in Panavision and it's interesting to see that American logo come up on screen after Toho's banner. The sleek music score by Masaru Satô (Yojimbo) definitely has a Western feel.
The packaging, menus and other accouterments retain a pleasing Japanese flavor, all except for the main Media Blasters animated logos, which have obnoxious soundtracks that resemble white noise. The removable subtitles are easy to read, with the occasional phrase rendered in an amusing choice of English phrasing, as when Ruriko Asaoka tells some losing dice players, "Sorry, y'all!" Maybe it's the translator's attempt to tell us that the original Japanese track had similar anachronisms.
An exciting original trailer is the only extra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I expect a Pulitzer for that timeless metaphor. As soon as SAVANT makes it to real print.