Thursday, April 14, 2011

Messin’ With The Shogun-Animeigo’s “The Secret of the Urn”

It’s not often one can enjoy the pleasure of seeing the Tokugawa Shogun being taunted face to face by a crazy man who’s also just exposed his closest advisor as a crook AND broken up his formal chanoyu (tea ceremony). Tange Sazen not only does it with style from the top of a towering pagoda, but manages to survive the occasion intact. Well, relatively intact-he’s still missing an arm and eye, and there’s more trouble to come. The self-styled God of Death is still out there somewhere-and Fuji probably needs to put her clothes back on. It seems messin’ with the Shogun is only one of the many pleasures to be found in Animeigo’s new DVD release of Toei Studio’s 1966 “The Secret of the Urn”.

As brought up in Animeigo’s press release, the character of Tange Sazen is to Japan much like the characters Zorro and the Lone Ranger are to the West. Created by Fubo Hayashi (one among many pen names of Hasegawa Kaitarou), he appeared in all sorts of stories that have been adapted dozens of times on the big screen and Japanese television. Some have even featured a female version of the character. And of these, no story has been filmed more than the story of the ‘Million Ryo Pot’-the ‘Earless Monkey Urn’ (as Animeigo’s notes explain, this refers to a pot with broken handles-although the pot in this film obviously never had any). These films usually include Sazen’s ‘support group’-shady singing teacher Fuji, thief Yokichi, and Sazen’s unwanted kid sidekick, Chobiyasu.

Sazen wasn’t always a one eyed, one armed monster-when the film starts, we see him as Tange Samanosuke-a straight laced, clean cut retainer of the Nakamura fief in Oshu. Samanosuke’s been summoned by his superior to the scene of a brutal interrogation. A castle maid has admitted under torture that’s she’s a spy, and that she isn’t the only one. As the best swordsman in the clan, Samanosuke is ordered to kill the remaining enemy agent. This is to be the fateful assignment that transforms him into Tange Sazen-and it’s best experienced without further spoilers. All we’ll say is that Samanosuke should really be more careful about who his friends are…Time passes and we learn that the Shogun is having the Nikko Tosho-gu shrine of the Tokugawa’s ‘founding father’, Ieyasu, refurbished. This is an extremely expensive undertaking and would normally be assigned to a wealthy clan. However, his councilor Guraku advises him to have the Yagyu clan (yes, the same clan that screws over Ogami Itto in the “Lone Wolf and Cub” films) foot the bill. Guraku knows that the clan won’t be able to afford it through normal means and will have to resort to drawing upon their secret horde of a million ryo. The evil councilor intends to steal this for himself and then have the Yagyu disenfranchised by the Shogun for their failure, grabbing their position and status. When informed of their alleged ‘honor’, the Yagyu realize the only way to raise the money is to access the clan’s hidden treasury-which can only be found through the symbols located inside the ‘Earless Monkey Urn’. Yagyu Genzaburo transports the urn to Edo and is set upon by a large group of Guraku’s disguised ninja-not to mention two thieves, Fuji (played by Awaji Keiko) and Yokichi, who have learned about the plot. This results in a spirited game of ‘hot potato’ involving the urn and a running sword battle where none of the three parties is able to keep their hands on the relic-instead, it’s given to Chobiyasu (a young boy sleeping in a boat) by a dying Yagyu samurai with instructions to bring it to the Yagyu in Edo for a reward. A fifth party is introduced into the fray when Chobiyasu runs into an abandoned shack for cover. Pursuing ninja are cut down by the shack’s occupant-Tange Sazen. The contrary Sazen decides that if the urn is getting so much attention, it’s something he wants to hold on to-and when Fuji and Yokichi offer him a quick escape in a boat, he happily accepts.

Of course, Fuji and Yokichi waste no time in trying to get rid of Sazen and acquire the urn for themselves. While Fuji seduces Sazen, Yokichi attempts to spirit the urn away-but he’s foiled by his own clumsiness and stopped by the angry one-armed swordsman. When Fuji pulls a Western pistol on Sazen and demands the urn, he simply uses it as a shield and dares her to shoot-a stalemate, at least until Guraku’s ninja lurking outside decide to crash the party. There’s another running fight, this time across the rooftops, and when the last ninja is dispatched Sazen still has the urn. Seemingly having forgotten his fight with Fuji and Yokichi, he tells them they need a new hideout. Chobiyasu, hoping to get the urn back for himself, follows them to their new lodgings in an abandoned temple taken over by thieves. Here Sazen strikes up a strange friendship with the criminals, winning their trust and support when he gives them a cut of the proceeds when he sells a fake ‘Earless Monkey Urn’ to Guraku. He also settles into a relationship with Fuji, who finds herself attracted to him despite his scarred face and missing limb. However, when Hagino (Sazen’s love from his days as Samanosuke) turns up and recognizes him, Fuji and Sazen have a falling out and she decides to sell the real urn to Guraku. Guraku’s managed to have the Yagyu invited to a formal chanoyu given by the Shogun and ‘requests’ they bring the fabled Earless Monkey Urn (which was a gift given to them by Tokugawa Ieyasu). He knows that not being able to produce a clan treasure gifted to them by the first Tokugawa Shogun will be the final nail in their coffin. Taiken, Guraku’s ninja chief and the self-styled “God of Death”, has also disguised himself as Sazen and killed several Yagyu samurai-focusing the Yagyu’s recovery efforts away from Guraku.

At this point, Sazen is opposed by the forces of the Yagyu and Guraku as well as by Fuji, Yokichi, and Chobiyasu. Legendary Shogunate Magistrate Ooka Echizen has also organized a large force to oppose Sazen, having been warned by Guraku of a planned ‘assassination attempt’ on the Shogun during his tea ceremony (which is just an attempt to set up Sazen when he attempts to recover the urn). Sazen is seemingly readying himself by pounding down sake, distraught over both the appearance of his former love and his argument with Fuji. And the God of Death awaits his turn to cross swords with the one-armed monster. While it doesn’t look like there’s any way this situation can end well for the people that deserve it, it seems that Sazen has a few tricks left up his empty sleeve-not to mention Nakamura Kinnosuke’s badly camouflaged arm.

Star Nakamura Kinnosuke gives the film much of its appeal. Mirroring his award-winning performance in “Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai”, Kinnosuke in essence plays two characters in the film: the steadfast, loyal and dutiful Samanosuke and the wild, disrespectful and violent Tange Sazen. As was the case in “Bushido”, it’s hard to believe it’s the same actor. His Sazen is a real pleasure to watch, with outrageous mugging to the camera and an over-the-top vocal delivery that perfectly captures the essence of the character. Sazen’s insane grin and lifted eyebrow never fail to elicit a laugh as he prepares to go off on his enemies. Animeigo gets our thanks for bringing Kinnosuke to the attention of Western jidaigeki audiences, now taking his rightful place beside the other J-Stars better known here such as Mifune Toshiro, Nakadai Tatsuya, Wakayama Tomisaburo, and Katsu Shintaro. Check out Kinnosuke in other films like “Bushido”, “Musashi”, or in his turn as Ogami Itto in the TV version of “Lone Wolf and Cub” (where, in our opinion, he made a much better Ogami than Wakayama did in the film versions). For our money, Kinnosuke’s the premier figure in the jidaigeki tableau. While other stars could match his intensity, few displayed the type of range he routinely did.

Also interesting in a limited part is Amatsu Bin, whose stern look and commanding physical presence made him a heavy in quite a few films (most notoriously in yakuza films). Often playing a ninja or gangster, Bin is best known for portraying master ninja Fuma Kotaro in the TV series “The Samurai/Shintaro the Samurai”, a series that was to 1960’s Australia what the Batman TV series was to the United States. Here he plays Taiken (while we don’t know what kanji this uses, it can be translated as “Great Sword”), the leader of Guraku’s ninja and Sazen’s deadliest enemy. He styles himself “The God Of Death” (translated as “The Grim Reaper” by Animeigo) and provides the film with one of those Zatoichi/Sanjuro style ‘second endings’. Amatsu provides Sazen with a foe worthy of his sword.

It is somewhat odd seeing director Gosha Hideo directing what was for all intents and purposes a programmer. However, it came fairly early in his directing career and displays much of the humor and light touch seen in his first film, the excellent “Three Outlaw Samurai” (which one would hope Animeigo picks up at some point). Gosha’s films were to become increasingly darker and more serious from this point on with entries such as the two “Samurai Wolf” films, “Goyokin”, “Tenchu”, “The Wolves”, “Hunter In The Dark”, “Onimasa”, and “The Geisha”. Often featuring Tatsuya Nakadai as their star, these films form the basis of Gosha’s reputation in the West (although we tend to prefer his early work). Gosha allows Nakamura to chew the scenery and doesn’t meddle with the proven Tange Sazen formula. His directorial style enhances the film without trying to draw attention to itself-there are many instances of cleverly framed shots (such as shooting the actors through torn shoji screens) and framing (using pillars in the foreground to set Sazen and Fuji apart from the band of thieves). He’s particularly good at setting up running battles, with the four way battle for control of the urn mentioned earlier being the most exciting example. Little touches such as the camera lingering on a shelf stocked with urns lined up in order of descending size before panning down to Sazen (in this case symbolic of how the urn is beginning to lose its importance in Sazen’s mind at the moment) are throwaways to be discovered in repeat viewings.

Comparisons can be made between Sazen and the subject of our last review, Nemuri Kyoshiro from the “Sleepy Eyes of Death” series. While on the surface the black clad Kyoshiro’s cool and detached manner (with a sword style to match) is completely unlike the white clad Sazen’s boisterous personality and frenzied swordplay, underneath there are plenty of similarities. Both Sazen and Kyoshiro display contempt for authority and the two-faced world of the samurai where outrages are routinely excused by a hypocritical code of conduct. Common townsfolk (even those on the ‘wrong side’ of the law) and the rare samurai that does indeed embody the spirit of the warrior are the people these two find worthy of their help. The swordsmen also share some physical characteristics-spiky hair instead of the standard samurai chonmage along with wearing a close fitting simple robe, dispensing with a regular samurai’s hakama and kataginu. Let’s not forget that Ichikawa Raizo (Kyoshiro) also played a one-armed swordsman in "Samurai Vendetta".

As mentioned earlier, this is just one among many films that feature the story of Sazen and the Million Ryo Urn. Out of the eight or so versions we’ve seen (including a 1920’s silent version and an 80’s version featuring Nakadai in the starring role), this is probably our favorite. However, the 1935 version (“Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth One Million Ryo”) holds a special place in our hearts. Largely eschewing the tragic circumstances of Sazen’s situation and the whole ‘noble ronin’ shtick (which does get quite tiresome in jidaigeki at times-we like our ronin evil and the Bakufu good), star Okichi Denjuro portrays a grouchy but ultimately comedic Sazen, making for that rarity-a good samurai comedy that doesn’t rely on farce. Okichi was a huge star in Japan in that era-you might have seen him as Yoshitsune’s pal Benkei, bailing out his lord by faking his way through a recital of “The Subscription List” in Kurosawa Akira’s “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail”. The actress playing Fuji in this film (Kiyozo) is an adorable sweetheart as well, and the film has a warm and humanistic feeling much like the recent film “Hana”. It’s sad that the film’s director, Yamanaka Sadao, fell into disfavor with the Japanese government and was shipped off to the Manchurian front where he died at the young age of 28.

Animeigo’s translation is again top notch with viewing options for every level of Japanese proficiency. The translation includes the complete cast and crew from the credits, something that’s rarely seen in releases from other companies. The print looks great with a good depth of color and nice clean sound. Extras include the film’s theatrical trailer, some short bios, and a few stills. The historical notes are interesting but only seem to cover the first third of the film. Since both the Yagyu family and Edo magistrate Ooka Echizen were taken from history (as well as being favored subjects of many other film series and television shows), it’s curious that they weren’t brought up in the notes. One interesting note points out a scene where you can clearly see Sazen’s “severed” arm alive and well. Another extrapolates the value of one million ryo via the going rate of cheap prostitutes!

This film is back-to-basics old-fashioned 60’s chanbara fun with little of the dark tone that Gosha’s later films veered into. Watching a cackling Sazen berate a befuddled Shogun while safely ensconced on top of a pagoda is the closest thing in a Japanese film to the ‘French taunter’ from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. The entire film is laced with kinetic energy and a good-natured disrespect of authority. See for yourself how much fun messin’ with the Shogun is. “The Secret of the Urn” is another great vehicle for Nakamura Kinnosuke and a classic chanbara effort from Toei Studios. Pick up a copy of “The Secret of the Urn” at a discount direct from Animeigo HERE or from Amazon through the SA store.

All images copyright and courtesy 1966 Toei Co. Ltd

1 comment:

  1. Toshiro Mifune & Tatsuya Nakadai? That's all you had to say!