Goyokin (1969)
Directed by Hideo Gosha

Starring Tatsuya Nakadai (Magobei), Kinnosuke Nakamura (Fujimaki), Tetsuro Tamba (Tatewaki), Ruriko Asaoka (Oriha), Yoko Tsukasa (Shino), Isao Natsuyagi (Kunai)
Screenplay by Hideo Gosha and Kei Tasaka
Music by Masaru Sato

Toho Company, 124 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope
English-subtitled DVD: Tokyo Shock

Goyokin roughly translates as "official gold," and this Hideo Gosha film follows the common chambara theme of an ambush being plotted to raid a covert shipment of government gold. In typical form, Gosha puts his own spin on this old chestnut to yield a complex examination of the gray area between right and wrong.

The movie opens with the aftermath of the gruesome slaughter of an entire fishing village, with Hitchcockian crows scavenging the dead. It turns out that members of a samurai clan have hijacked a convoy of shogunate gold, then wiped out the villagers at the scene of the crime to eliminate the potential witnesses. A young woman named Oriha returning to the village after serving five years in servitude can only interpret the horror she discovers as Kamikakushi, a folklore term for being spirited away by the gods.

Rather than acting purely out of greed or malice, the samurai are acting to preserve their clan, which is mired in debt and suffering. This justification isn't enough for our hero Magobei (Tatsuya Nakadai), who is so appalled by his clan's deeds that he abandons them, his wife and home to become a ronin. Upon Magobei's departure, his brother-in-law Tatewaki (Tetsuro Tamba), the ringleader of the theft and massacre, makes a samurai vow that he will never commit another act of Kamikakushi.

Three years later, Magobei crosses paths with Oriha and an amiable secret agent of the shogunate played by Kinnosuke Nakamura. Through them, Magobei learns that Tatewaki is planning to break his vow. The clan is desperate for more money, and this time around Tatewaki intends to force the shipwreck of a cargo of gold by placing a misleading signal bonfire on the shore of a rocky reef. Magobei and his new associates team up to thwart this devious scheme.

Word has it that Toshiro Mifune was originally cast as Magobei, but he disliked the cold locations for the snowy exteriors and didn't get along with Gosha. Thus we never got to see a cinematic collaboration between Mifune and Gosha, but the replacement actor went on to become Gosha's most reliable leading man. Tatsuya Nakadai is right at home in the dark and cynical worlds of Hideo Gosha, appearing in ten of the director's films. Nakadai's Magobei is strongly reminiscent of his classic performance as the world-weary ronin in Harakiri, and not just because he uncharacteristically wore thick, unkempt beards in both roles. Both men are haunted by past betrayals and feel compelled to strike their blows against moral injustice even though they fully understand that their personal resistance with carry little or no effect in the sea of corruption engulfing them.

Gosha once again brings out the best in Tetsuro Tamba, generally considered a third-rate actor among chambara's most familiar stars. Tamba is best known for playing villains, and Goyokin casts him as a more complex bad guy than usual. As brutal as Tatewaki's crimes are, he really does have noble intentions to protect the people of his clan from having their lives ruined.

The final showdown between Magobei and Tatewaki is one of Gosha's most memorable swordfights. The setting among leafless trees in the snow-covered woods is cinematically gorgeous, and the action of the fight itself is sudden, brief and disorienting, like violence in real life. One detail I especially like is how both men take special care to warm their hands just before the confrontation, like you really would if you were bare-handed in frigid temperatures. Tatewaki uses a torch and blows warm breath into his cupped fingers, while Magobei enjoys special consideration being reunited with his wife. As jidai-geki films (including Gosha's Sword of the Beast) often point out, the best cure for hypothermia is a woman's bare flesh.

The Jidai-Geki Knights