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?
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.