Samurai Wolf (牙狼之介, Hideo Gosha, 1966)

A cheerful ronin with strong moral fibre finds himself squaring off against a nihilistic assassin and a corrupt retainer/postmaster in Hideo Gosha’s new wave chambara Samurai Wolf (牙狼之介, Kiba Okaminosuke). Where many jidaigeki of the age would follow the antagonist Sanai (Ryohei Uchida), Gosha’s focusses on the figure of a man with wolfish appetites who is otherwise unaffected by the infinite corruption of the world around him and in that at least unwilling to submit himself to the dog-eat-dog mentality of late Edo-era society. 

Wandering samurai Kiba Okaminosuke (Isao Natsuyagi) explains that he got his name because often he bares his fangs and is known as the Furious Wolf, yet as much as the ferocity of the opening titles might bear that image out he is not cruel or avaricious but measured and honest. After wolfing down an exorbitant amount of food prepared by an old woman at a way station, he announces that he can’t pay. The old woman panics and we wonder if he might become violent or even kill her, but Kiba simply offers to pay in kind fixing the old lady’s leaky roof and chopping a supply of wood much to her surprise and gratitude. It seems, the wolf always pays his way. While there, he witnesses a trio of bandits attack a postal cart and kill the men who were pulling it. He retrieves the bodies along with a runaway horse and takes them back to the outpost they came from but the guard there is disinterested claiming that, as they died on the road and not in the town, it’s not his business. As Kiba soon discovers, the guard is in league with a corrupt lord, Nizaemon (Tatsuo Endo), who is an official messenger for the shogun but wants to take over the public postal service which is why he’s terrorising the postmistress, Chise (Hiroko Sakuramachi), with the intention of getting his hands on the relay outpost. 

There is something a little ironic in the fact that Ochise is blind while Nizaemon’s chief assassin is deaf and mute, both of them excluded from mainstream society and looking for support but finding it in opposing directions. Formerly a samurai woman, Ochise wants to hang on to the outpost because it has become her place to belong while resenting the incursion by corrupt lord Nizaemon who only wants it for the potential to control the cargo route along with raising the rates to use it to exorbitant heights. Shortly after Kiba tries to take out the assassins, a bunch of government inspectors turn up to complain about the missing merchandise while backing Chise into a corner by forcing her to accept the liability for transporting a large sum of gold coins. Kiba originally says he won’t help because he doesn’t want to risk his life for people he doesn’t even know, but of course later agrees in part on the promise of a significant return but also because he likes Chise and resents the kind of corruption men like Nizaemon represent.

On the other hand, his humanity is mirrored in his antagonist, hired gun Sanai who fetches up to help Nizaemon stop Kiba and take over the outpost. Sanai cynically tells him, that in five years’ time Kiba will be no better than he is, if he doesn’t kill him first. Kiba rejects the claim but it’s easy enough to see how someone could be corrupted by the realities of Edo-era society. Sanai later reveals that he fell in love with a samurai woman and eloped with her, a fierce taboo given the class difference between them, and later fell into his present state of nihilistic despair when she was taken from him quite literally betrayed by the social order. But Kiba seems different. He is not naive and has no expectations of human goodness yet remains cheerful and in his own way honest. When a young woman comes to him with her life savings and tells him that Sanai is the man whom she’s been waiting for to gain her revenge, he tells her to keep her money because he’s going to end up fighting him anyway. Likewise, when he realises someone he trusted has betrayed him, he tells them that he understands why they did it and bears them no ill will it’s simply the way things are only he suspects they will regret that others have died because of it. Even in his final confrontation with Sanai, he notices that his opponent is injured and ties one of his own hands to his belt to ensure it will be a fair fight. 

In any case, it seems that Sanai’s morally compromised existence is about to catch up to him with several other players intent on taking his life aside from the sex worker who longed to avenge the deaths of her family murdered during a massacre of peasants killed for standing up to a cruel landowner. A female gang leader also wants revenge for the death for her boss, while the cynical madam at the local brothel offers to team up with him to steal the gold from under Nizaemon’s nose. It seems that Sanai is a man already dead, having long abandoned the lovelorn boy he was for the nihilistic existence of a wandering assassin only to be confronted with the ghosts of the unattainable past. This world is indeed rotten, but Kiba has somehow managed to rise above it embracing his wolfish appetites in more positive ways while opposing injustice wherever he finds it. Much more avant-garde than much of his later work would be, Gosha makes great use of slow motion and silence broken only by the reverberating sound of clashing swords and hints at the meaninglessness of a life of violence in an agonisingly haunting death scene in which a bloodstained man turns and falls as if the air were suddenly leaving his body. In the end all Kiba can do is turn and walk away, on to the next crisis on the highways of a lawless society.


Samurai Wolf opens at New York’s Metrograph on Dec. 26 as part of Hideo Gosha x 3

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Actress vs. Greedy Sharks (小判鮫 お役者仁義, Tadashi Sawashima, 1966)

actress vs greedy sharks soundtrack albumA studio director at Toei, Tadashi Sawashima is best remembered for his work in the studio’s ninkyo eiga genre – prewar tales of noble gangsters, and samurai movies but he also made the occasional foray into the world of musical drama, teaming up with top name singing star Hibari Misora on a few of her historical action musicals. In 1966’s Actress vs. Greedy Sharks (小判鮫 お役者仁義, Kobanzame Oyakusha Jingi) Hibari once again plays a dual role though this time her casting is entirely arbitrary and the visual similarity of the legit actress and the acrobatic outlaw is never explicitly remarked upon.

The action opens with Shichi (Hibari Misora), an acrobat and member of a Robin Hood style band of outlaws (they don’t so much give to the poor as “share” with the less fortunate) interrupting the plot of Yamitaro (Yoichi Hayashi) – a nobleman in disguise to pursue revenge against corrupt lord Doi (Eitaro Shindo) who exiled his father to Convict Island when he began to raise questions about judicial corruption. Meanwhile, Yuki (also played by Hibari) is a top stage actress who is plotting against Doi for sending her father to Convict Island 20 years previously on a trumped up charge. Just as the “tomboyish” Shichi is beginning to fall for the mysterious Yamitaro, he teams up with Yuki to pursue their mutual quests for revenge which has Shichi feeling (needlessly, as it turns out) betrayed and vengeful.

Once again, the samurai order is shown to be corrupt beyond redemption. Doi, a greedy lord, is planning to sell off his only daughter, Ran (Yumiko Nogawa), as a concubine to the shogun. Meanwhile, he is also engaging in a rice profiteering scheme in order to bolster his financial resources. He is also still misusing his influence, just as he did when he had Yuki’s father sent to prison and got rid of Yamitaro’s so he couldn’t expose him.

As in her other movies, Hibari cannot allow this corruption to continue and becomes a thorn in the side of authority. However, the situation this time around is further complicated by her double casting in which she plays two visually identical characters who are, nevertheless, entirely unrelated and the resemblance between them entirely unremarked upon. The “tomboyish” Shichi, apparently falling in love for the first time much to the confusion of herself and others who regarded her lack of traditional femininity as a barrier to romance, becomes awkwardly resentful of the graceful Yuki whose charms she assumes will sway the handsome Yamitaro. Shichi does not seem to consider a class barrier between herself and Yamitaro as a problem but fears his natural affinity with a woman she perceives as superior to herself in her refinement, yet Yuki proves herself as staunch a fighter as Shichi and just as feisty. She appears to have little romantic interest in Yamitaro even if she resents Shichi’s rather blunt instructions to back off, and aside from concentrating on her revenge, spends the rest of the film dealing with the rescue of Doi’s daughter Ran who has drawn inspiration from her stage performances to rebel against her cruel fate and father.

Ran is just another symptom of her father’s corruption in his obvious disregard for her feelings as he prepares to send her off as a concubine to buy himself influence with only the mild justification that her ascendence to the imperial court is an honour even if she will never be a wife, only one of many mistresses. Unlike Ran, Yuki and Shichi have managed to seize their own agency, living more or less independently and as freely as possible within the society they inhabit. Experiencing differing kinds of bad luck and betrayal, they find themselves at odds with each other yet on parallel paths despite their obvious dualities.

With less space for song, Hibari’s dual casting does at least offer twice the fight potential as the outlaw and the actress finally find themselves on the same side to tackle the persistent injustice of Edo era society as manifested in the corrupt Doi and his slimy cronies gearing up for the mass brawl finale in which the wronged take their revenge on the wicked lord by proving him a villain in the public square and earning themselves not a little social kudos in the process. All of which makes the strangely melancholy ending exiling one aspect of Hibari to the outer reaches somewhat uncomfortable but then it does provide an excuse for another song.


Hibari’s musical numbers

River Washes Away the Moon (残月大川流し, Yasushi Sasaki, 1963)

River Washes Away the Moon posterTimes are changing fast in Edo. Hibari Misora reunites with director Yasushi Sasaki for another jidaigeki adventure only this time one with much less song and dance and fewer tomboy antics for the often spiky star. Set in 1868 in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, River Washes Away the Moon (残月大川流し, Zangetsu Okawa Nagashi) is, in its own way, a story of revolutions, personal and political, as sides are picked and alliances forged in midst of a city in flux.

Edo, 1868. The Tokugawa Shogunate has been drummed out of the capital by the collective forces of Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa but a new regime has yet to solidify itself. While some remain loyal to the Tokugawa cause, others join the new imperial armies leaving Edo a fractured state in which loyalists are on the run and violence rules the streets. Meanwhile, ordinary Edoities are trying to go about their everyday business. Ogin (Hibari Misora), an orphan, is a member of a pickpocketing gang run by a cruel mistress who metes out extreme punishments to those deemed to have transgressed her stringent rules, most often by trying to keep some of the money for themselves rather than hand it to the bosses for “redistribution”. Ogin is good at pickpocketing, but she has a noble heart and feels sorry for the country bumpkins who often become her prey. The madame wants her to take over the gang, but she wants out of the criminal life as soon as possible.

With things the way they are, the the loyalists ask the pickpockets for a favour – steal the shoulder badges off the Imperialist mercenaries so they won’t be able to return to their camps. The madame declares herself apolitical and declines but Ogin, a true child of Edo, feels quite differently and is only too keen to support the loyalists in whichever way she can. She gets her opportunity when a wounded soldier, Shinzaburo (Yoshitomo Ogasawara), creeps into the house she hides out in to get away from the gang. Ogin bravely hides Shinzaburo from the Imperialist troops and then hides him again when he returns sometime later after another battle with a lost little girl in tow. The pair grow closer, but Shinzaburo is under the impression Ogin is a wealthy merchant’s daughter and has no idea she is a poor orphan forced to pick pockets on the streets in return for safe harbour.

Unlike many of Misora’s jidaigeki heroines, Ogin is a much more “feminine” figure – she never gets to do any fighting of her own and the (extremely subdued) romance with Shinzaburo becomes the film’s main focus. She is however steadfast and bold. She stands up to her madame as much as feels she is able and is desperate to extract herself from the criminal world. As an orphan without any other means of support, however, her options are limited and even when she tries to do good it’s thrown back in her face.

Even Shinzaburo whose ideals one would hope to be more compassionate is after all a loyalist and not a revolutionary. His ideals are conservative if bending towards the moral good and therefore when he finds out what Ogin really is their connection is broken, he loses respect for her and though she never lied to him he blames her for the life she was forced to lead. A man like Shinzaburo might have lost his place, but he’s never known the kind of hardship a woman like Ogin has had to endure and the concepts are alien to him.

After getting her heart broken by Shinzaburo, Ogin finds the strength to break away from her criminal family by becoming an itinerant musician which gives Misora a chance to sing another song – her only other musical number is a full on set piece taking place during a community show held to raise money for orphans and possibly reunite dislocated people with their families in the process. Nevertheless Misora delivers an impressive performance as the continuously lovelorn Ogin, convinced that her world is limited by the circumstances of her birth and only latterly realising she has the power to change her fate (if for the slightly dubious reasons of proving herself worthy of Shinzaburo). Ogin opts for her personal revolution while Shinzaburo opts for a political one. By 1963 the winds of change were indeed blowing through Tokyo once again, though if there are any political messages to be found in River Washes Away the Moon they are fairly subtle and lean more towards compassionate living and finding the strength to live by your principles than advocating for direct agitation as the best path towards a fairer world.


Hibari’s musical numbers (no subtitles)