Sunday, August 21, 2011


Before there was a one-armed swordsman or one-armed boxer in Hong Kong, before there was a one-armed murderer on The Fugitive TV series, before Spencer Tracy was a one-armed karate expert in Bad Day at Black Rock, there was Tange Sazen. Created by the author Fubo Hayashi in 1927, the one-armed, one-eyed ronin has been a fixture of Japanese pop culture ever since. Within a year of his invention, he was in the movies, and films have been made of his mythical exploits ever since, the latest in 2004 according to Wikipedia. So popular was the motif of Tange Sazen that one studio contrived to turn the character into a woman for a presumably bizarre but also presumably progressive series of films. Hideo Gosha's rendering of the Sazen story is, one must assume, more conventional, and has the advantage of being made when Gosha was at the peak of his powers as a director of suspenseful action films. Apparently an adaption of an established Sazen story, The Secret of the Urn also feels like a dry run for Gosha's masterpiece Goyokin, which would appear three years later.

Gosha's film opens with Tange Sazen's origin. Our antihero starts out as an ordinary Tokugawa-era samurai, Samanosuke (Kinnosuke Nakamura) who is assigned to assassinate a conspirator. He's tapped because he once loved the target's wife, so that his superiors can disclaim responsibility and blame Samanosuke for acting out of jealousy. He confronts his target in the countryside, informs him of the charge, and gives him a chance to die honorably in combat. The conspirator, deciding that his cause is hopeless, opts for seppuku instead, asking Samanosuke to be his second and deliver the deathblow. His promise proves treacherous; when Samanosuke assumes the position, the conspirator turns on him and slashes his face, blinding him in one eye and in effect making him the Jonah Hex of Japan. Samanosuke still finishes his man, but now has to fight off government men who tag him as an insane murderer. He escapes, but leaves his sword arm behind in the confusion.

The plot proper now begins. We're introduced to the famous Yagyu clan, which has been commissioned by the shogunate to host an important festival. The purpose of this is simply to drain the Yagyu of their resources; if they can't come up with the funds, their fiefdom will be forfeit. Times are tough, as they usually are in a Gosha film, so what is to be done? A 120-year old retainer has the answer: the Yagyu possess a treasure known as the Earless Monkey Urn. Of great historical significance in its own right, the urn also has the key to a million-ryo treasure. The only idea I can offer of how much that is is to note that one hundred ryo is the amount usually offered some sucker who happens to possess the urn but doesn't know its true value. Such a person is presumably very much impressed with the hundred ryo, so escalate accordingly. But how do other people get their hands on the urn?

There are spies and thieves everywhere, it turns out, so that not only the Yagyus' rivals but a pair of common thieves -- a stuttering burglar and a pistol-packing geisha -- know about the urn and its significance, even if none of them necessarily know how to interpret its inscriptions. The amazingly resilient urn -- what is it, made of iron? -- literally becomes a football scrimmaged over by rival factions as the two thieves and an ambitious little urchin watch and wait for their chance. The struggle eventually brings everyone to the doorstep, figuratively speaking, of the ronin Tange Sazen, who has trained himself as an invincible swordsman with his remaining arm. He soon takes charge of the urn, knowing only that people are fighting over it and that he can clearly make mischief with it. The thieves know what it's worth, but Sazen doesn't necessarily care -- and at the same time the more-or-less innocent Yagyu have a perfectly legitimate claim to the urn, and their future depends on it. Will the mockingly bitter Sazen regain his sense of honor? Will the reappearance of his lost love bring him to his senses, or has something developed between him and the geisha -- and will that bring him to his senses -- or her to hers?

My feeling that Secret of the Urn was a practice run for Goyokin is based on several factors, including the presence of Nakamura, the convergence of politics and a money grab, the involvement of a brother-and-sister team of rogues, and the fact that Urn isn't quite as good as the later film. Goyokin may simply have been Gosha's way of improving on many of the established story elements in the Tange Sazen saga. The later film has both a stronger moral core, embodied by Tatsuya Nakadai, and a more relentless dramatic momentum. Urn is episodic and protracted by comparison, even though it's a good half-hour shorter than Goyokin. It's inferior on just about every level, but not being a masterpiece is no crime, especially when Urn is as lively and well-acted overall as it is. It shares with Goyokin a realist but not revisionist awareness of the cynical and mercenary forces at work in samurai times, along with a faith that true heroism was both possible and capable of victory. That makes Gosha's samurai films classic adventures of the sort fans of classic Hollywood could recognize and empathize with.

Personally, one bonus element in Urn is the presence of ninjas. Especially gratifying is Gosha's use of them the way they should be used: as cannon fodder -- or, to be more accurate, either sword fodder or fodder for the geisha's pistol. For are not ninjas the most overrated creatures in all creation? I might take them seriously if they were "modern ninjas" like the ones Tetsuro Tamba (a welcome presence in Urn, as usual) was training in You Only Live Twice, but too often in movies ninja are no more than allegedly lethal mimes with Boba Fett powers. They are assumed to be badass because -- to somebody -- they look cool. The armies of ninjas that infested the 1980s were good only for laughs. Historical ninjas are admittedly more plausible as menaces, but only if used properly as skulking assassins. In Urn, when they attempt to attack frontally or en masse, they are properly slaughtered with sword and gun. Tange Sazen has my respect on the strength of this one outing as a ninja-killer. Doing it all one-handed is nearly as impressive as the Chinese martial artists in that Japanese film whose title I can never remember who could take out ninjas with his bare hands. So ha-ha to Eric Van Lustbader, Frank Miller and other ninja-lovers; I do not recommend Secret of the Urn to them.

Nor would I recommend it objectively to anyone unfamiliar with Hideo Gosha's work until you've seen Goyokin first. But since Urn is currently available as a Netflix streaming video, while they have to send you Goyokin in the mail, you may as well watch Secret, since it is a well-made, entertaining action movie from the classic period of samurai cinema. Think of it as an appetizer, with Goyokin as the main course; you'll probably like it, and I can assure you there's better to come.

AnimEigo released the film on DVD this year, provided the stream to Netflix, and uploaded this English-subtitled trailer to YouTube.


Samurai Swords said...

Very cool concept and reviews
The work is very versatile, with so many concentrations intermingling
Samurai Swords

venoms5 said...

Ah, I must get this one now! Speaking of one armed protagonists, do you remember Joe Don Baker as the one armed gunslinger in GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969)? There was a great and funny scene between him and Bernie Casey in that one.

Sam, since you mentioned ninja, have you seen any of the SHINOBI NO MONO films yet? I have one or two of them. There's eight of them total if I'm remembering right. The ninja of Chiba's five SHADOW WARRIORS series are rather cool, as well.

Samuel Wilson said...

venom, I didn't recall Baker but he certainly deserves inclusion in the one-arm canon. And I think I have some of that series in a Videoasia box set but given the variant titling I can't be sure until I do more research. I allow that ninjas can be done right, but they're too often done ridiculous, though they can still be entertaining on that level.

venoms5 said...

The SHINOBI NO MONO series is out here from Animego but I wouldn't doubt the VideoAsia bootleggers interfering on their sales.