Sunday 13 September 2009

Samurai Saga (1959)

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Star: Toshiro Mifune

It's well known of course that classic Japanese cinema intersects with its western counterpart in strange ways that seem to make no sense but still work wonderfully, as most of us have now experienced. No less a name than Sam Peckinpah wished he could make westerns the way Akira Kurosawa made westerns. He channelled John Ford into his samurai films, which the Italians turned into spaghetti westerns, which in turn influenced the Americans who began the cycle. As I learned yesterday, the French would call that La Ronde.

Meanwhile back in Japan, Kurosawa was translating Shakespeare into period Japanese drama, turning Macbeth into Throne of Blood and infusing King Lear into Ran. Yet somehow it seems surprising that Hiroshi Inagaki, after making his Musashi Miyamoto trilogy and the Yagyu Secret Scrolls films, all with Toshiro Mifune, should choose to adapt something as quintessentially French as Edmund Rostand's nineteenth century French play Cyrano de Bergerac into a samurai film. Surprisingly it works pretty well.

It's 1599 and we're in Kyoto, which looks like nothing less than a Japanese version of a Renaissance Faire. The kabuki actress Okuni is performing and she's a major draw, given that she really began the art of kabuki, though a few years later in reality. She's the object of a lot of attention: Tokugawa samurai working for Lord Nagashima want to breeze on in without paying, but others working for Lord Oshida take offence. Worst of all, Heihachiro Komaki, a renowned samurai, interrupts the performance with arrogance. He's offended at Okuni herself, who has promised to stay off the stage for two weeks, a promise she's now broken.

Komaki, like the character he's based on, has a huge nose, though being Japanese it's more spread across his face than sticking out from it. Where someone like Gerard Depardieu was totally recognisable with a prosthetic nose, Toshiro Mifune is almost unrecognisable with his. His deep and resonant voice is unmistakable though, as is the authority by which he clears the stage of Lord Nagashima's insolent samurai who try to take him on after he chases Okuni off stage. He even does it with a song that he composes on the spot, giving the crowd a show after all. It can't hurt that the Oshida uniform includes an orange and black striped shirt and blue trousers with what look like clouds on them. He looks like nothing less than a pirate.

Of course, he has to be tough, given that his nose would prompt everyone to make fun of him, if only they dared. He also has the sad task to love someone who doesn't love him back, his childhood companion who has grown up to be the Lady Ochii, Princess Chiyo. Worse yet, the princess loves another man, Jutaro Karibe, a country samurai who's a newcomer to the Oshida force and who loves her in return. Unfortunately for her, while Jutaro is a superb swordsman, his skills don't extend beyond that and the princess is eager for the sort of eloquence only Komaki can provide. So Komaki becomes his words, romancing the woman he loves for another.

While Akira Takarada is decent as Jutaro Karibe, this is really a story custom made for Mifune. It's hard to even watch anyone else, except when the Battle of Sekigahara briefly erupts out of nowhere or on the few occasions that the delectable Yoko Tsukasa and Keiko Awaji are on the screen. Tsukasa is Princess Chiyo, eager for praise but not wanting the simply repeated 'I love you' that's all that Karibe can offer on his own. Awaji is Nanae, a simple yet beautiful girl in the neighbourhood whose part is sadly tiny.

Mifune dominates this film though, partly through his character being utterly the focus and partly through his acting, as always, being literally a tour de force. Perhaps it's also partly through the fact that he must have known writer/director Hiroshi Inagaki well. This was the eleventh of their twenty films together, all made in the twenty years between 1951 and 1970. Amazingly this was roughly the same period that he made so many memorable films for Akira Kurosawa (sixteen between 1948 and 1965) that made him the most famous and recognisable Japanese actor in the world. Films like this couldn't hurt: the worst thing about it is its pointlessly generic title.

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