Destiny’s Son (斬る, Kenji Misumi, 1962)

“Sad is his destiny” laments a seemingly omniscient lord in Kenji Misumi’s elliptical tale of death and the samurai, Destiny’s Son (斬る, Kiru). A chanbara specialist, Misumi is most closely associated with his work on long running franchises such as his contributions to the Zatoichi series and Lone Wolf and Cub cycle, and though sometimes dismissed as a “craftsman” as opposed to “auteur” is also known as a visual stylist capable both of the most poetic imagery and breathtaking action. 

Scripted by Kaneto Shindo, Destiny’s Son follows cursed samurai Shingo (Raizo Ichikawa) who finds himself the victim of cruel fate and changing times during the turbulent years of the bakumatsu. His mother, Fujiko (Shiho Fujimura), a maid misused by a plotting courtier and talked into murdering the inconvenient mistress of a wayward lord, was executed for her crime by the man she loved, Shingo’s father who later renounced the world and became a monk. In a sense, it’s Shingo’s sense of displacement which later does for him, allowed the rare freedom of a three year pass from the apparently compassionate lord of the clan which took him in to go travelling during which he learns superior sword style something which came as a surprise to his old friends on his return who’d always thought him gentle and bookish. His talent makes him dangerous to an unexpected rival in his strangely mild-mannered neighbour who happens to have a crush on his sister Yoshio (Mayumi Nagisa) but is quite clearly under the thumb of his finagling father, Ikebe (Yoshio Inaba), who is convinced the family can “do better” as long as he triumphs in a contest of martial prowess with a passing master to whom the clan has given temporary shelter after he was cast out of his own. Of course, nothing goes to plan. The master easily defeats even the clan’s most talented warriors until Shingo is called up as a last resort only to best him with his signature move learned out on the road, a dangerous throat thrust. 

In a theme which will be repeated, Shingo finds himself in the middle of accidental intrigue through no fault of his own though the ill-conceived Ikebe revenge plot does at least allow him to discover the sad truth of his family history even as it deepens his sense of displacement. Slashing right into the mores of the chanbara, Misumi pares Shindo’s screenplay down to its poetic minimum as the hero sets off on his elliptical journey, achieving his revenge as the first stop before walking back into the past and then into an accidental future as a retainer to Lord Matsudaira (Eijiro Yanagi) himself at the centre of bakumatsu intrigue in trying to quell the divisions within the Mito clan some of whom have been involved in anti-shogunate terrorism setting fire to the British Legation shortly after the nation’s exit from centuries of isolation. An eternal wanderer, he resolves to have no wife and wanted no ties, haunted by the trio of women he couldn’t save from the mother who birthed him in part as a bid for mercy, to the sister who died a pointless and stupid death because of samurai pettiness, to another man’s sister whose name he never knew who stripped naked and threw her kimono at her assailants to save her brother’s life while they too were on the run after standing up to samurai corruption. He loses three women, and then three fathers, the first he never knew, the second taken from him in more ways than one, and the third betrayed by the complicated world in which they live. 

“I cannot be forgiven” Shingo exclaims, his end tied to that of his mother as a sword glints gently in the bright sunshine and blood drips, the only blood ever we see, on another woman’s breast. Elegantly composed and often set against the majestic Japanese landscape, Misumi’s ethereal camera with its dynamic tracking shots, controlled dolly movement, and frequent call backs to the setting sun lend Shingo’s journey an elegiac quality even in its evident nihilism as he finds himself consumed by the samurai legacy, discovering only futility in his rootlessness unable to protect himself or others from the vagaries of the times in which he lives. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

On the Road Forever (無宿者, Kenji Misumi, 1964)

“I take to the road whether or not I am alive” confesses the spiritually defeated hero of Kenji Misumi’s filiality drama, On the Road Forever (無宿者, Mushukumono). Two sons each seeking vengeance for a wronged father become first accidental friends, then almost enemies, and finally something more like brothers bound and ruined by the failures of the samurai code. The villain may not unfairly claim that the system of the world is one “dirty great monster”, but the implications of his revelations lead directly back into the infinite corruptions of the samurai order as mediated through the failures of fatherhood. 

“Drifting crow” Ipponmatsu (Raizo Ichikawa) temporarily teams up with fallen samurai Kuroki Yaichiro (Jun Fujimaki) who has become desperate enough to unwisely attempt robbing a gambling den. Nevertheless, we are clued in to the idea that these are the good guys when they’re helped by a young village woman, Haru (Mikiko Tsubouchi), who lends them her father’s horse instructing them to return it to him at a nearby village which the guys later do even attempting to hand the old man some of their ill-gotten gains as a thank you though he refuses and warns them not to hang around too long because “it’s a rough neighbourhood”. All too soon we discover what he means. A big wig former yakuza who suspiciously came into massive amounts of money two years previously has pressed the villagers into debt and is currently inducting them into indentured servitude on Sado island in order to recoup costs. Perhaps Ipponmatsu doesn’t approve, but he’s on a journey for a reason and would have carried on by had he not heard word that that shady yakuza Shima-ya Jubei (Toru Abe) may be connected to the death of his father during a high stakes robbery on a mountain pass. 

Ipponmatsu, whose name literally means “a single pine”, is the archetypal wandering son who ran away from his clan without permission in rebellion against his authoritarian father who raised him alone after his mother’s death and tried to instil in him the values typical of his class through the medium of violence. Having come across a decomposed body with his father’s distinctive sword at the scene of the robbery, Ipponmatsu has had a change of heart and dedicated his wandering to avenging his memory. Sticking around in the town, he comes to suspect that Yaichiro’s father Hanbei may have been behind the theft of the missing imperial gold only later realising that he too is on a quest to learn the truth in the hope of clearing his father’s name. The two men end up raising swords against each other but discovering they are indeed different, Yaichiro a gentle soul who apparently excelled in the dojo but has no “courage” in the field and Ipponmatsu a fiery hothead who thinks killing is less a matter of skill than “courage and explosiveness”. 

There is, it has to be said, a fairly obvious twist that neither man perhaps too bound up in their own sense of responsibility fully considers. Nevertheless, they are both faced with the decision of what to do should they discover the truth considering that raising a sword against one’s father is an unforgivable sin while knowing that such a heinous betrayal of their code cannot go unpunished. The villains boast of their well connected networks and supposed untouchability laying bare the essential corruption of the samurai order as they wilfully manipulate and exploit impoverished peasantry for their own ends while cruelly joking that all classes are alike in their greed when tempted with riches, entirely unrepentant even as they lament the hypocrisy of the samurai who have no money yet continue in their arrogance. 

Despite having been raised in a homosocial environment told that falling in love with women is a pointless waste of time, Ipponmatsu picks up the affections of two firstly earnest farm girl Haru and secondly misused mistress and sister of Shima-ya, Osei (Eiko Taki). This is however a manly drama concerned with the ways in which men interact with other men, firstly in the awkward fraternity of Ipponmatsu and Yaichiro and then in their mutual and continually changing relationships with their absent fathers living in the shadow of patricide and justice. Elegantly composed as always, Misumi frequently shoots through obstacles imprisoning the men within the broken beams of ruined buildings or spying in a POV shot from an upstairs balcony while making full use of his trademark love for the natural world in closing with a painful confrontation in which the nature of filiality is turned inside out as a corrupt father falls on his sword for his noble son amid the rocks surrounded by rolling waves. As the title suggests, the melancholy ending severs the hero from his ancestral “home” leaving him forever a wanderer untethered yet in a sense never free of his paternal legacy. 


Bronze Magician (妖僧, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1963)

Even when you’re the empress, a woman has little freedom. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Bronze Magician (妖僧, Yoso) is loosely based on a historical scandal concerning Nara-era empress Koken/Shotoku and a Rasputin-like monk, Dokyo, who unlike his counterpart in the film, eventually tried to seize the throne for himself alone only to have his ambitions frustrated by the empress’ death and the fierce resistance of her courtiers. As the title implies, Kinugasa is more interested in Dokyo than he is in the perilous position of Nara-era women even in power, painting his fall from grace as a Buddhist parable about a man who pays a heavy price for succumbing to worldly passions. 

As the film opens, Dokyo (Raizo Ichikawa) emerges from a shallow cave amid many other caves after meditating for 10 years during which he reached a higher level of enlightenment and obtained mystic powers. Now he thinks it’s time to continue the teachings of departed mentor Doen and use his abilities to “actively do good and save the masses”. Before that, however, he does some not quite Buddhist things like turning a rat into a living skeleton, and twisting a snake into a tangle. In any case, he begins roaming the land, miraculously healing the sick. While reviving a thief who had been killed by samurai after trying to make off with a bird they shot, Dokyo is spotted by a retainer of the empress who brings news of his miracles back to her closest advisors. 

Empress Koken (Yukiko Fuji), in the film at least, was a sickly child and even after ascending the throne has often been ill. She is currently bedridden with a painful respiratory complaint that is giving her servants cause for concern. None of the priests they’ve brought in to pray for her (apparently how you treat serious illness in the Nara era) has been of much use. The empress’ steward Mabito (Tatsuya Ishiguro) orders that Dokyo be found and brought to the palace to see if he can cure Koken, which he does while stressing that he’s helping her not because she’s the empress but in the same way as he would anyone else. 

As might be expected, the empress’ prolonged illness has made her a weak leader and left the door open for unscrupulous retainers intent on manipulating her position for themselves. There is intrigue in the court. The prime minister (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is colluding with a young prince to depose Koken and sieze power. Left with little oversight, he’s been embezzling state funds to bolster his position while secretly paying priests to engineer Koken’s illness continue. Dokyo’s arrival is then a huge threat to his plans, not only in Koken’s recovery and a subsequent reactivation of government but because Dokyo, like Koken, is of a compassionate, egalitarian mindset. She genuinely cares that the peasants are suffering under a bad and self-interested government and sees it as her job to do something about it, which is obviously bad news if you’re a venal elite intent on abusing your power to fill your pockets while the nation starves. 

As the prime minister puts it, however, the empress and most of her courtiers are mere puppets, “naive children”. At this point in history, power lies in the oligarchical executive who are only advised by the empress and don’t actually have to do what she says. As she is also a woman, they don’t necessarily feel they have to listen to her which is one reason why the prime minister assumes it will be easy to manoeuvre the young prince toward the throne. Koken’s short reign during which she overcame two coups is often used to support the argument against female succession because it can be claimed as a temporary aberration before power passed to the nearest male heir. Nevertheless, Koken tries to rule, even while she falls in love with the conflicted Dokyo. Her right to a romantic future, however, is also something not within her control. Many find the gossip scandalous and use it as an excuse to circumvent her authority, especially after she gives Dokyo an official title which allows them to argue she has been bewitched by him and he is merely manipulating her to gain access to power. 

Dokyo, meanwhile, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. After 10 years of study he as reached a certain level of enlightenment and attained great powers which he intended to use for the good of mankind. He is happy to discover that Koken is also trying to do good in the world but she is, ironically, powerless while the elitist lords “indulge in debauchery”, abusing their power to enrich themselves while the people starve. He begins to fall in love with her but the palace corrupts him. He accepts a gift of a beautiful robe despite his vows of asceticism, and then later gives in to his physical desire for Koken only to plunge himself into suffering in the knowledge that he has broken his commandments. He loses his magic, but chooses to love all the same while rendered powerless to hold back Koken’s illness or to protect her from treachery. 

The pair mutually decide they cannot “abandon this happiness”, and Dokyo’s fate is sealed in the acceptance of the extremely ironic gift of golden prayer beads which once belonged to Koken’s father. He is reborn with a new name in the same way as the historical Koken was reborn as Shotoku after surviving insurrection, embracing bodily happiness while attempting to do good but battling an increasing emotional volatility. The lords continue to overrule the empress’ commands, insisting that they are really commands from Dokyo, while Dokyo’s “New Deal” involving a 2 year tax break for impoverished peasants finds support among the young radicals of the court who universally decide that they must stand behind him, protecting the ideal even if they are unable to save the man.

This troubles the elders greatly. Declaring that Dokyo has used “black magic” to bewitch the empress, they determine to eliminate him, but Dokyo never wanted power. “Power is not the final truth” he tells them, “those blindly pursuing status and power only destroy themselves”. Yet Dokyo has also destroyed himself in stepping off the path of righteousness. He damns himself by falling in love, failing to overcome emotion and embracing physical happiness in this life rather than maintaining his Buddhist teachings and doing small acts of good among the poor. Nevertheless, he is perhaps happy, and his shared happiness seems to have started a compassionate revolution among the young who resolve to work together to see that his ideal becomes a reality even in the face of entrenched societal corruption.


Original trailer (no subtitles)