After joining the studio in the mid-1950s, Tai Kato quickly made a reputation for himself with Toei’s key brand of ninkyo eiga yakuza movies set in the chivalrous world of pre-war gangsterdom. By the early 70s, however, the genre was already played out and Kato began to work more frequently with other studios and in various genres but 1973’s The Blossom and the Sword (日本侠花伝, Nihon kyoka den), produced for Toho the studio which he had first joined at the beginning of his career in 1937, takes him back to his ninkyo roots if less directly in a politicised tale revolving around the 1918 rice riots.
The film opens, however, a few years earlier with the heroine, Mine (Hiroko Maki), attempting to sell children’s educational picture books aboard a train (an activity strictly prohibited). As she explains, they are in the middle of a recession and times are hard for everyone though as we discover the reason for Mine’s journey is that she is in the process of eloping with the mild-mannered Minoru (Kunio Murai), the son of a wealthy family with literary dreams, who is prevented from marrying her because of the class difference between them. The couple are doing well enough evading detection, but are caught out when accidentally implicated in the murder of a treacherous politician by left-wing agitator/noble gangster Seijiro (Tetsuya Watari) who fatefully locks eyes with Mine while trying to escape forever binding their fates together.
Epic in length the film was originally released in two parts with an interval in-between, this first half focussing on Mine’s doomed romance which is thwarted in part by the outdated social codes of the early Taisho society and the moral cowardice of her lover who finds himself unable to resist them. The pair are thrown in prison as possible co-conspirators and beaten by the police, Mine striking up a friendship with a woman, Tsuru (Junko Toda), imprisoned for distributing pamphlets as a labour activist who later helps her to get a waitressing job and teaches her rudimentary writing while Minoru lounges around in their home sort of writing a novel. Tsuru seems to be touched by their cross-class romance, “where love is concerned to hell with social status!” she insists berating Minoru for giving in so easily when the pair are finally tracked down by his austere mother. Her socialist activism may not directly rub off on Mine but does perhaps inform her later actions after discovering the depths of Minoru’s spinelessness, rescued after a failed bid at double suicide by a truly good man, Kinzo (Meicho Soganoya), who also happens to be a traditional yakuza heading a harbour gang in Kobe.
After becoming his wife, Mine comes to witness the persistent unfairness and exploitation all around her as mediated by the outcry surrounding the fluctuation of rice prices in the late 1910s caused by attempts at profiteering and the necessity of supplying the military forces then participating in the war in Europe. Meanwhile, would be local dictator and amoral yakuza Kishimoto (Toru Abe) is intent on squeezing the Osada gang out of the harbour further pushing up rice prices while in cahoots with corrupt local authorities. Seijiro re-enters her life when dispatched to assassinate Kinzo on the orders of Kishimoto but stabbing him as carefully as possible to make sure he doesn’t die, thereafter switching sides to fight for the rights of the poor who he warns face even greater oppression should a man like Kishimoto be allowed to dominate the harbour.
With Kinzo out of action, Mine assumes her natural destiny as a local leader doing her best to stand up to Kishimoto and the corrupt authorities but still faces difficulty getting her voice heard without a man standing next to her. On taking Kinzo’s place at a meeting of local bosses, she is dismissed as “just a woman” before a sympathetic naval officer decides to hand her a lucrative job shifting rice intended for sailors overseas because of her knowledge of current affairs undercutting Kishimoto’s attempts to game the system. It’s the trust the navy have in her that later saves her again when she is arrested and brutally tortured by corrupt policemen working with Kishimoto intent on tracking down Seijiro for the murder on the train all those years previously. Mine’s rise is also in a sense Seijiro’s redemption as he atones for the attack on Kinzo, rejects his association with Kishimoto to re-embrace his socialist beliefs, and fulfils the romantic destiny sparked when their eyes met on the train.
Drawing a direct line between burgeoning militarism and gangsterdom along with the amoral exploitations of an increasingly capitalist society, Kato makes his intentions clear by dropping a ninkyo eiga hero into a world of infinite corruptions in which he eventually becomes a defender of the poor. Kato’s striking composition and use of colour along with expressionistic imagery lend the air of legend implied by the title as Mine fights her way through the oppressions of her era as a figurehead for justice in an increasingly unjust society.