Wednesday, April 13, 2011

GOYOKIN (1969)

It is the way of the samurai to protect the interests of his domain. The well being of hundreds of retainers may depend on his actions. When the domain of Sabai falls on hard times, what is Rokugo Tatewaki to do? For him, the way of the samurai is piracy. When a ship bearing goyokin -- precious metals destined for the government reserves -- runs aground in his territory, Rokugo and his men seize the gold and silver from the peasants and fishermen who'd salvaged it from the wreck. The way of the samurai is slaughter: to cover up the crime, Tatewaki has the villagers slaughtered. They can be blamed for the theft and punished for it, while the loot was supposedly never recovered.

Magobei Wakizaka (Tatsuya Nakadai) isn't so sure about the way of the samurai. He comes late upon the scene and sees innocents butchered, including a woman in her wedding kimono. He protests to Tatewaki (Tetsuro Tanba), a longtime friend and his brother-in-law, who urges him not to report the deed to the bakufu -- the shogunate administration. In return for his silence, Magobei extracts a promise that Tatewaki will never pull such a stunt again. Satisfied, Magobei retires to Edo. Over time, a legend spreads about the ruined village, that it was annihilated by the kamikakushi, a divine curse symbolized by flocks of crows, except for one survivor, a woman who's seen as lucky or accursed, depending on your point of view. She's the first character we meet in Hideo Gosha's colorful thriller, as she returns to her village after a term of indenture in a textile town. She finds the village deserted except for crows. As she searches for her father or any sign of life, the movie gradually goes silent. No music, no dialogue, and finally no sound effects, until Oriha (Ruriko Asaoka) finds a body. It's an eerie moment and typical of the movie's idiosyncratic outbursts of style in the midst of a well-made thriller plot. Later, Gosha transforms crows in mid-flight into ideograms to announce a leap forward in time. Experimental or expressionist or simply indulgent moments like these may reflect the influence of spaghetti westerns on the samurai genre that itself influenced the Italian movies. What goes around comes around.

The man in the hat above is Magobei Wakizaka (Tatsuya Nakadai) and he's about to put on a show.

We first meet Magobei in Edo, where samurai stalk him amid a sideshow of swordsmanship. When they try to kill him, and he recognizes the dead as Sabei men, he realizes that Tatewaki no longer trusts him to keep silent -- or, worse, that Tatewaki assumes that he won't keep silent should the goyokin incident repeat itself. The stage is set as the Sabei clan discusses the funds needed for an extensive improvement project. Where will the money come from? Not knowing this, but suspecting the worst, Magobei heads north to Sabei, but not before making his money-hungry ronin crony Samon (Kinnosuke Nakamura) interested in what might be going on. On his way, Magobei encounters Oriha of the Kamikakushi, who has become an alcoholic gambler with her "brother" Rokuzo (Ben Hiura) as a shill. Magobei saves them from a gang of angry yakuza that caught Oriha clumsily cheating. Meanwhile, Tatewaki realizes that Magobei is coming and will probably have to die, but wants a peaceful way out. He has his sister Shino (Yoko Tsukasa) go to Magobei and urge him to go back where he came from with her and Tatewaki's best wishes. But the way of the samurai as Magobei sees it requires him to atone for his past error and ensure that justice is done for the victims of the "kamikakushi." Warned that confronting Tatewaki means certain death, Magobei says that he's dead already, and will stay dead until justice and true honor are satisfied....

Goyokin is a great adventure film, beautifully shot in the snowy landscapes of northern Japan and performed by an excellent ensemble cast. It's a debunking anti-authority film, exposing "the way of the samurai" as men like Tatewaki see it as an immoral system of oppression and cruelty. At the same time, Tatewaki isn't a pure villain. He really doesn't want to kill Magobei until the very end, and there's something poignant about the way he fails to understand the wrong of what he's doing. If it is wrong, he blames the bakufu for impoverishing Sabei and forcing his hand. We're near the end of the shogunate, the story being set in 1831, and no one seems happy with the bakufu. A character who works for the government eventually states that he's tired of being the bakufu's dog. There seems to be no authority worthy of an honest samurai's loyalty. If there is a way of the samurai worth following, each man must find it with justice as his guide.

But action fans can skip the message and enjoy a slick thriller. Gosha and co-writer Kei Tasaka skillfully gather a motley group of heroes and potential heroes and find a task for each of them. Tatewaki's master plan is to misplace a giant signal bonfire that the goyokin ship navigates by. If he snuffs the bonfire on one cliff and lights one on another, he expects to trick the ship's captain to steer straight into the rocks. He'll then send villagers out, coercing the men by taking the women and children captive, to retrieve the goyokin. Only the bloody cleanup will remain. To thwart Tatewaki, Magobei and his friends must rescue both the village men and the hostages, snuff the false bonfire and re-light the correct one -- and nothing's going to happen without a fight. And it'll all go down in the middle of a winter storm. For the occasion, Gosha puts on a brilliant show of timing and crosscutting, producing one of the most suspenseful sequences I've seen in a samurai film.

I've already implied that Tetsuro Tanba gives a strong performance as the conflicted villain, and kudos are due as well to Ruriko Asaoka for her spunky surliness and to Kinnosuke Nakamura for making his questionable ronin consistently likable yet consistently questionable. But this is Tatsuya Nakadai's show, and he is terrific. He's a master of dignified, soulful indignation and he convinces you that Magobei has been suffering inside for his one moral slip, not by emoting but with his eyes and his posture. I've liked Nakadai in just about everything I've seen him in (most readers will most likely know him from Kurosawa's Ran) and it's a shame that, still living, he still dwells in the shadow of Toshiro Mifune in most people's eyes. Mifune may have been the greater star with the greater persona, but Nakadai may well be the better actor with the greater range.

There's something special about action in winter, whether you're watching a western, a modern crime film or a samurai movie. Goyokin is probably one of the best winter action films ever made, though there's also plenty of rain and muck along the way for contrast. It's one of those rare films that can be appreciated visually as a work of art and enjoyed viscerally for violent thrills. In short, it should have something for everyone, unless you really can't stand subtitles -- and then you might try to find a copy of The Steel Edge of Revenge, a dubbed edition released in the U.S. in the 1970s. If I ask you to go to that trouble, then consider this film highly recommended.

Manos99 has uploaded a subtitled trailer to YouTube. Calling itself "an entertaining samurai film" is really being modest.


Temple of Schlock said...

THE STEEL EDGE OF REVENGE is missing something like 35-40 minutes of the movie -- which may not be a bad thing for those of us who've already admired the art of GOYOKIN twice and wouldn't mind taking a short cut through the museum from this point on. Ditto the American cut of THE NIGHT CALLER, which jettisons some of the filler and concentrates on Belmondo's amazing stunt work.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sadly, the news that the dubbed edition is also a gutted one doesn't surprise me. I've seen posters for Steel Edge that treat it as pure exploitation, selling "Ken-Do" as the hot new martial art. I suppose someone could look at it and then appreciate the original without necessarily keeping up with all the subtitles.

venoms5 said...

I've got a fan subbed version of this and for whatever reason, have yet to sit down and watch it. I have a handful of Gosha's other movies, too...which have also went unwatched, lol. Terrible, I know.