In the midst of post-war confusion, Japanese cinema increasingly looked back to Meiji in all of its chaotic possibility in order to ask what went wrong and what lessons it might have for a second kind of revolution as the nation tried to rebuild itself after decades of militarist folly and chastened wartime defeat. “Tsukigata Hanpeita” (月形半平太) is a “legendary” fictional character first imagined for a kabuki play in 1919 who finds himself swept up in Bakumatsu intrigue as he tries, along with daring revolutionaries Sakamoto Ryoma and Katsura Kogoro, to forge an alliance between the clans of Choshu and Satsuma in order to take on the corrupt shogun in defence of the Emperor and foster a new era of peace in an increasingly uncertain world.
When we first meet him, Tsukigata Hanpeita (Utaemon Ichikawa) is on the run from Kyoto-based special police force the Mimawarigumi but also making time for his mistress, Umematsu (Chizuru Kitagawa) – a geisha. This in particular is a problem which has left him dangerously exposed, even the Mimawarigumi leader Okudaira (Joji Kaieda) seems to be aware of the relationship and is apparently not above using it to his advantage. Meanwhile, he’s not only threatened by shogunate defenders, but by his own side – both by those who remain unconvinced by Sakamoto’s (Jotaro Togami) internationalist philosophy, and by those who simply hold a grudge against Satsuma because of a previous conflict and regard Tsukigata as a traitor for daring to talk to them at all. Despite everything, Tsukigata hides in the shadows and commits himself to living, and if necessary dying, to bring about a better world free of shogunate oppression.
Unlike other revolutionary legends, however, Tsukigata’s fervour has not made him cold or cruel even if he must sometimes act in ways which are mysterious and confuse those around him. Meeting a young man on a bridge, he applauds his studious nature, agreeing that “nothing is more important than to understand advanced civilisation”, and is as polite as he could be when the man tells him he has just joined the Mimawarigumi. Rather than attack or berate him, Tsukigata cheerfully wishes the young man well, allowing him the space to see that his present allegiance to the shogunate is perhaps misguided and out of line with his personal beliefs.
Indeed, his compassion extends even to Okudaira – his mortal enemy. Offering his condolences to a grieving Somehachi (Isuzu Yamada), Tsugikata laments that in a better world he and Okudaira may have been friends, that he had no personal grudge against him despite the fact that they clearly lived on different sides of an ideological divide. He could perhaps even harbour a kind of professional respect for him in his dogged defence of his duty for all he believes it to be misguided. “It’s so unfortunate”, he exclaims, “We have to make the world a better place”.
His desire to change the world is what keeps Tsukigata alive. Several times he faces certain death, but declares but he cannot die now with his great work left unfinished. He is not afraid of death and would gladly give his life in the service of his cause, only not just yet. “Would you please spare my life until I change the world?” he begs of someone he fully believes has a right to kill him, eventually winning their support and unexpected allegiance solely through his guileless goodness.
Yet for all that, his moral austerity does at times perhaps cause him problems in giving rise to emotional confusion. So it is that he winds up in an accidental love triangle with the smitten Somehachi – a former geisha turned madam whose patron is none other than Okudaira, and Umematsu an ageing courtesan with whom he has developed a more or less settled relationship. This is clearly the story of Tsukigata Hanpeita, but more than that it’s the story of the three women who support him without whom the revolution may even be impossible. Somehachi, despite her allegiance to Okudaira, has been a longstanding Tsukigata ally several times helping him escape from the oncoming Mimawarigumi, while Umematsu provides him with safe harbour and occasional message carrying services which is where teenage geisha Hinagiku (Hibari Misora) comes in, acting as a revolutionary go-between with deep-seated political passion.
Speaking strongly of female solidarity, the fallout from the love triangle is eventually minimised by the sisterly geishas who later bond in their shared support of Tsukigata and resolve to put past pettiness behind them. Meanwhile, Tsukigata is deceived by male treachery, only to finally receive the message he’s been waiting for which seems to make everything worthwhile. “I can see the dawn of a new era”, he exclaims, “the new era will be peaceful”. Suddenly he’s not just talking of himself anymore, but directly to the post-war era as he begins to see the way out of a “chaotic society” towards a prosperous future in the faces of his friends united in mutual support and the belief that his better world will soon be a reality.