Director: Hideo Gosha.
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai (Magobei Wakizaka), Kinnosuke Nakamura (Samon Fujimaki), Tetsuro Tamba (Rokugo Tatewaki), Yôko Tsukasa (Shino), Ruriko Asaoka (Oriha), Isao Natsuyagi (Kunai), Ben Hiura (Rokuzo), Kô Nishimura, Shinnosuke Ogata (Miyauchi Hanzo), Shingo Osawa (Kishima Genai), Tsuyoshi Haraguchi (Ishikawa Kurodo), Koichi Sato (Arai Dokan), Hisashi Igawa (Takeuchi Shinjiro), Susumu Kurobe (Omura Sobee), Kenjiro Hoshino (Okajima Yahachi).
1831,debts owed by a small province to the Tokugawa Shogunate causes province leaders to stealing goyokin (gold and silver) from mining sites on Sado Island & worse (e.g., massacre)
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
For 300 years the Tokugawa Bakufu ruled Japan, from the early 1600s to the end of the 1800s. The regime was in part financed by goyokin, that is, the gold and silver taken from the mines on Sado Island. From 16,000 kan to 24,000 kan per year were mined. The gold was made into gold bars. The bars were put in packages, 20 bars per package. Then 20 packages each were taken on 40 boats headed for Edo (today's Tokyo). The boats sailed along the Western Route from Sado to Shimonoseki. The journey to the main island at Tsuruga around the Noto Peninsula took three days. The area around the peninsula was filled with reefs and jagged rocks and was known as the "graveyard of ships".
Walking in the snow, a young woman who is returning to her village after five years of indentured servitude watches as a bridal procession passes along the coast. She can't wait to get home and tell her family about the procession.
It is Tenpo2 (1831) Echizen Sabai. The young woman reaches her village, but there is no one around. She goes to her home and no one is inside. And there are crows, scavenger birds, all around the area. Looking around the woman finds a decapitated head hidden in the straw. She screams. The thought is that the Kamikakushi are responsible for this.
Second year of Tenpo, October. All thirty plus people of Kurosaki Village, Yotsugaura in Echizen, in the domain of Sabai, were wiped out in one night. The name of Kamikakushi creates terror in the domain.
Three years later. It is the fifth year of Tenpo. Edo. A kind of sideshow performance is being performed. It consists of a display of fast swordsmanship. The swordsman is Heisuke Nagai (a.k.a., Magobei Wakisaka). The man in charge, Samon, sells a secret toad oil to the crowd. Three swordsmen in the audience demand that the performer start his show at once. So the performer appears. He splits a fish in half laid across the gap between a woman's thighs. The primary challenger is not impressed and uses his sword to cut the strings one by one on a banjo-like instrument. When the performer does not respond to the challenger, the main fellow uses his sword to cut part of the performer's huge hat.
At night, still mad at the performer, the three challengers end up killing the wrong man. They approach the vendor of the toad oil, Samon Fujimaki, and ask him where they can find Magobei. Samon tells them that Magobei quit and that he, Samon, is now the performer. Magobei is trying to sell his samurai sword. As soon as he sells it, however, he asks for it back. Five of the bad guys surround Magobei and attack him. Magobei is able to kill them all. He asks a man named Takeuchi why are men from Sabai Domain coming for him now. It's been three years. Takeuchi tells him that Chief Retainer Tatewaki is planning another Kamikakushi massacre, but first they want Magobei out of the way.
Flashback. Scenes of the first massacre. Men, women and children are cut down. Magobei screams at Kunai, the man in charge: "Why?" The peasants were killed because they stole the Bakufu's goyokin from the ship that sunk the previous night in the storm. Magobei says that this is not true. The peasants gave up all of the 70 kan they rescued. The goyokin was then placed in a bridal procession. The orders for the massacre came directly from Chief Retainer Tatewaki. While talking, a wounded farmer attacks the two men and Magobei ends up killing him. Kunai tells Magobei: "You have committed the same crime Wakisaka." Now the order is given to kill the members of the bridal procession so there are no witnesses. Magobei is especially shocked at the murder of the bride.
Magobei wants to know why they did not give the farmers a reward for returning the goyokin. The answer is that they cannot afford this. The province is in danger of defaulting on their taxes to the Bakufu. There is also the fear that the farmers might revolt and that the Tokugawa Bakufu might send their forces to punish the province. But Magobei doesn't accept these as legitimate reasons for a massacre. He says: "It's wrong." He asks: "Do you have to be that loyal? It's wrong." The rebuttal is that the province was afraid that the fisherman would tell the Tokugawa authorities that the province had stolen their goyokin. Anyway, "That's the samurai way!" Magobei is so upset that he decides to leave the province and go to Edo.
Back to the present. Magobei tells Takeuchi that he is going back to Sabai; turning a blind eye to the massacre three years ago was a mistake. Takeuchi tries to kill him. Magobei kill Takeuchi.
Sabai Castle. Chief Retainer Tatewaki wants to develop Jurigahama as usable farm land. His sister Shino, Magobei's wife, is weaving. Kunai asks her: "It's not for Mogobe Wakisaka is it?" Shino does not speak to Kunai. Her brother receives the news that Magobei is returning.
The lone survivor of the massacre, the young woman, and her brother Rokuzo are running a shill game with some of the men of the yakuza. When the players discover that the young woman, known as Oriha, and her brother are cheating they decide to take vengeance upon them. It just so happens that Magobei is passing by and he saves them by killing a number of the yakuza. Oriha and Rokuzo leave via a boat.
Chief Retainer Tatewaki tells Shino that her husband is coming home. He adds: "I must kill Magobei." The plan is to set up an ambush death-trap along the main road for Magobei. Magobei continues his journey. He comes to an outpost where Oriha and Rokuzo are staying. Rokuzo brings Magobei to the house to see Oriha. When Oriha sees Magobei she tells her brother to get lost. She then offers Magobei a drink. To return part of what she feels she owes him, she tells Magobei: "My body is yours." But the swordsman only wants to find out more information about the massacre. Oriha tells her side of the story, but senses that Magobei knows something more than he is telling her and demands that he tell her. Magobei becomes aware of an eavesdropper and quickly opens the sliding door to find his old sideshow sidekick Samon. Oriha thinks the two men are in cahoots and shouts at them: "You're mocking me! You're in it together!" Rokuzo arrives and takes his sister away.
Samon tells Magobei that he wants to blackmail the Sabai Domain. They can extort blackmail money from the local government with what they know. Magobei is not interested. Samon says he is going to join in with the forces of Tatewaki.
Outside, the yakuza grab Oriha, put a rope around her body and drag her through the mud of the town behind a horse and rider. Fortunately Magobei shows up at the right time to cut the rope, thereby saving Oriha. Then Magobei sees his wife in the village. She tells her husband that she has money with which to go away. Magobei says the money came from her brother Tatewaki and he won't take his money. He says to his wife: "I must go back to Sabai." His wife answers: "They will kill you?" He only says: "I am prepared. . . . I am already dead . . . Since the time I turned a blind eye to Tatewaki's Kamikakushi." By fighting against Tatewaki he thinks he can regain his right to live. He then leaves to continue his journey.
Magobei reaches the place of the ambush. The assassins come toward him. Kunai says: "Traitor! You must die, Magobei!" Seeing that he is outnumbered, he heads into an abandoned house and kills the men inside. The assassins then try to burn the house down. After killing a few more assassins trying to enter the house to kill him, Magobei comes out of the house to confront Kunai and the others. He kills some more of the assassins. Then he is saved by a larger group of armed villagers brought in by Oriha and Rokuzo.
Tatewaki is going to try to grab another goyokin shipment. He gives Samon the job of lighting a big bonfire on the headlands tomorrow night. Samon finds Magobei and they go into an abandoned house. Samon tells him what Tatewaki wants him to do. The plan is to not light the usual warning bonfire that guides the goyokin ships away from the reefs and jagged rocks and light a bonfire on another promontory so that the ships will crash on the rocks. The village that will be massacred is Samegafuchi. Then suddenly the forces of Tatwaki start firing their rifles into the abandoned house. Samon and Magobei realize they have been surrounded. They try to make a run for it but are captured with the use of large nets. Orders are given to put most of the people of the village into one house under guard. The able-bodied villagers will man the boats to recover the goyokin from the transport ship. Magobei is tied up with rope and then hung up in a tree. Tatewaki speaks to him. He tells him not to interfere, but to take Shino and leave Sabai Domain. Magobei replies: "I have to kill you to save the villagers."
Magobei is able to free himself. Tatewaki tells one of his men to go back to make sure Magobei is dead. They will proceed on to take Samon to the Onnamisaki point for a good view of what will happen. Tatewaki's man returns to check on Magobei and Magobei kills him. Magobei starts to climb up to the top of Onnamisaki point. The fire on Onmamisaki is put out. When Tatewaki's men light the misleading bonfire, Magobei attacks. He frees Samon and he kills some of Tatewaki's men.
Just as the villagers are to be sent out into the sea in boats, Magobei arrives to tell them not to go. He tells them to run away instead. Oriha lights the fire on Otomasaki point. Now the goyokin sailors see two fires and are confused. Oriha's brother dies while protecting her. Magobei kills Kunai. He then knocks the misdirecting bonfire into the ocean. This allows the navigator to follow the correct bonfire signal to avoid the perils of the rocks.
Tatewaki sees his sister and tells her to tell Magobei that he wants to speak to him alone. Shino tells Magobei. Magobie travels to the dueling place. Tatewaki throws a knife-like object and hits Magobei in the shoulder. Magobei is able to pull out the spike. When Tatewaki raises his sword to kill Magobei, Magobei kills Tatewaki with a blade stroke to the chest. Tatewaki dies.
The drummers beat out a rhythm for the funeral of Tatewaki. Oriha survived the struggle. Alone Magobie starts his journey back to Edo. But following his footsteps is his wife Shino who catches up with him. The continue their journey.
Good movie. Not a whole lot of history, but it does deal with a province being so heavily taxed by the Tokugawa Shongunate that the local administrators thought they had to steal funds in order to pay off their debts. There were a lot of action sequences and they were entertaining. Tatsuya Nakadai as the strong, silent Magobei Wakizaka was very good.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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