Reviewed by Chris MaGee
From its very genesis over a century ago samurai have played an integral part in the history of Japanese cinema. From the umpteenth number of retellings of The Loyal 47 Ronin through the legendary films of Kurosawa and Inagaki to the manga inspired “Lone Wolf and Cub” series and all the way to the present day spate of revisionist samurai dramas from the likes of Yoji Yamada and even Hirokazu Koreeda the top knot and the katana have made their way through theatres around the world, a beloved entertainment export that have gone on to spawn video games, graphic novels and helped to reinvent the American western. Some have been more successful than others, but for sheer entertainment you can’t go wrong with Hideo Gosha’s 1969 film “Goyokin” which not only delivers some amazing sword fighting action, but also integrates aspects of another cinematic genre: the heist picture.
Magobei Wakizaka (played by the incomparable Tatsuya Nakadai) is an impoverished ronin exiled from his northern homeland of Sabai. Three years earlier his brother-in-law and the Sabai clan leader Tatewaki Rukogo (Tetsuro Tamba) was in a bind. With his domain heavily in debt to the ruling Tokugawa bakufu he could see no other way but to give into treachery to pay what was owed. This involved ordering the inhabitants of Kurosaki, a small fishing village, to help the Sabai samurai sink a bakufu ship and steal its cargo of “goyokin”, silver and gold mined from Sado Island as explained in the film’s preamble. Once this was accomplished, though, Tatewaki gave the order to have the entire population of Kurosaki massacred to cover up the theft. Magobei, shocked and disgusted by his brother-in-law’s actions, is given only one choice: go into exile and never speak of what occurred in Kurosaki or be put to death himself.
At the beginning of the film we find Magobei, grim and tattered, working as part of a traveling hucksters act in Edo. When his skills with a katana are witnessed by a group of samurai the past that he so desperately wants to forget comes back to haunt him. After dispatching all but one of the samurai in a furious duel he learns that Tatewaki’s prospects have not improved much in three years and that he’s planning another sinking of a bakufu ship and another village massacre in order to pay off the Shogunate. Magobei can’t stand by and have more innocent blood spilled, so he vows to return to his homeland and do whatever it takes to stop Tatewaki. On the way he’s joined by the beautiful Oriha (Ruriko Asaoka), the only survivor of the Kurosaki massacre, and the scheming ronin Samon who may be more than he lets on.
I quite enjoyed “Goyokin”. I never get tired of seeing Nakadai in a starring role, he’s probably my favorite Japanese actor and the rest of the all star cast is great. The plot, while being fairly involved at the beginning is always and engaging especially with the high stakes that it sets up for Magobei. And you can’t talk about “Goyokin” with mentioning the wonderfully choreographed fight sequences. The only drawback for me was an aesthetic one; while you have a cast of faces that starred in some of the most famous and critically acclaimed Japanese films of all time the film also has the feel of, in the camera work and soundtrack, of a 70’s chop-saki exploitation film. Having been made in 1969 it’s understandable, but at the same time an uneasy mix and there were times that I wished the film had been shot in black and white and that Toru Takemitsu had provided the score instead of Masaru Sato. In the end though this might just be splitting hairs. If you want a great two hours of samurai action then seek out “Goyokin”.