Kumokiri Nizaemon (1978)
Directed by Hideo Gosha

Kumokiri Nizaemon
a.k.a. Bandits vs. Samurai Squad
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai (Nizaemon Kumokiri), Shima Iwashita (Chiyo), Shogoro Ichikawa (Abe), Takashi Yamaguchi (Owari), Koshiro Matsumoto (Kuranosuke Tsuji), Tetsuro Tamba (Kichibei), Keiko Matsuzaka (Shino), Mitsuko Baisho (Omatsu)
Screenplay by Kaneo Ikegami

Shochiku, 163 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope
English-subtitled DVD: Samurai DVD

This movie is more commonly known in the English-speaking world as Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron or other variations thereof. To me that sounds like some horrible B-movie or Mighty Morphin Power Rangers kiddie nonsense, and not at all appropriate to the tone and content of this magnificent film. You just don't have high artistic expectations for any movie that's called Something vs. Something. So I prefer to call it by its original Japanese name, Kumokiri Nizaemon.

That may be a mouthful, but it's not some Japanese phrase that needs translating – it's the name of the main character. The name is repeated about a hundred times during the movie, and it takes on a memorable significance, sort of like Charles Foster Kane or Keyser Soze. So after you've seen the movie, it only seems natural that it should be called Kumokiri Nizaemon.

Whatever you want to call it, this Gosha epic has a notorious reputation for being very long (nearly three hours) and very difficult to understand. It's true, the first third of Kumokiri Nizaemon is pretty bewildering, throwing you into the middle of some intense conflicts with little in the way of exposition. The action-packed opening sequence appears to involve two groups of ninjas fighting over the spoils in a nighttime raid on a castle. Despite their dark robes and stealthy deeds, these combatants aren't practitioners of ninjitsu, they're gangs of professional thieves. The group emerging victorious is known as the Kumokiri gang, with kumokiri meaning "fog" (in reference to their ability to vanish into the mists following their crimes). In one of his few gestures to clue the audience into what's going on from the beginning, Gosha puts a caption on the screen with the character's name and "Kumokiri Gang Member" as each of them is introduced. Very 1970s, very "Deadly Viper Assassination Squad." Gosha uses the device to great ironic effect – a new character will seem like an innocent bystander, then bam, they're labeled as a Kumokiri Gang Member in disguise, just to show us that they're hidden everywhere.

So those are the "bandits" from the Engrish title; the "samurai squadron" is actually the Tokugawa shogunate's Special Arson & Investigation Squad, an elite police force. This means a more accurate title for the film's foreign distribution could very well be Cops and Robbers, and that's really what it boils down to. We meet Shikibu Abe, the chief investigator on the Kumokiri case (played by Shogoro Ichikawa, star of my favorite Hiroshi Inagaki movie, Whirlwind). The story unfolds quite cryptically, featuring various conspiratorial encounters, police investigations, a female Kumokiri member pretending to be in love with a rich merchant, a crooked cop and a hostage exchange. There's no way you could understand everything the first time you watch the movie, and yet it remains fascinating. I find myself wanting to know more instead of feeling frustrated.

At last, about 50 minutes in, the big boss Nizaemon Kumokiri (Tatsuya Nakadai) gathers up his troops for a big briefing session that sheds light on their background and Nizaemon's immediate plans. It's the sort of scene most movies of this sort would have included in the first reel, and the patient viewer is rewarded as the pieces begin to fall into place. Nizaemon explains that the Kumokiri Gang has had ten years of success, but they owe their continued survival to good luck. Now that they have stolen enough money for them all to retire comfortably, he has decided that the upcoming long-planned Owari theft "will be our final score." Then the Kumokiri Gang will truly vanish into the mists, forever. Sure, it's a huge cliche from a thousand heist movies. But after the movie's disorienting first act, it comes as a great relief to have a central story premise that we can solidly grasp like a life preserver.

But an even juicier slice of exposition comes along in the very next scene, when a blind masseur meets with Officer Abe to reveal the true identity of Nizaemon Kumokiri. The masseur, Sajuro Tomizuka, explains that he was an Owari clan samurai ten years ago when a scandal rocked the clan. Owari treasurer Kuranosuke Tsuji was accused of embezzlement and sentenced to seppuku. His family members were killed or severely punished and the Tsuji family name was expunged from the clan's records. But Kuranosuke defied his death sentence and fled with his younger brother Iori. Tomizuka led a group of samurai sent to capture the Tsuji brothers, and after they failed, he was blinded. While recently bound and gagged during a Kumokiri raid, Tomizuka heard Nizaemon Kumokiri's voice and recognized him as Iori Tsuji. Now we recognize that a strange monk we saw earlier in the movie was Kuranosuke Tsuji living in hiding.

Delving further into the unsolved Tsuji case, Officer Abe has to confront the dark truth at the heart of the Nizaemon Kumokiri crime spree: Kuranosuke Tsuji was an innocent man framed to take the blame for financial corruption in the clan. In a riveting scene, Abe asks an idealistic young officer what he would do if he were wrongly accused of a crime and his life was desstroyed. what would he do? If such a man hates the government an break the law, can we blame him? Should we arrest him? The rookie has no answers.

As the elaboration machinations behind the final Kumokiri heist grind forward, the Tsuji brothers are ultimately reunited for the first time in years. Kuranosuke pleads for his brother's help in taking their revenge on the Owari clan by killing the clan's heir at his coming of age ceremony scheduled soon. Kuranosuke has resolved to die there. But Nizaemon refuses to participate in the vendatta. He says Iori Tsuji died ten years ago, and Nizaemon Kumokiri has no concern for Tsuji family affairs from the past.

When Kuranosuke asks if he doesn't regret his life as a thief, Nizaemon says, "Compared to a samurai's life of staged falsehood, the life of a bandit is much better. Not having to kowtow to the corrupt government, or obey its false laws. No, I will never be sorry!" Then Kuranosuke disowns Nizaemon as his brother and vows to carry out his vendetta alone, even though he has little chance of success.

When the big Owari heist goes awry because the authorities and other bandits cut off the escape route, Nizaemon gets away but many of the gang members are killed or captured. Hearing the news, Kuranosuke abandons his vendetta plans and turns himself in to the police. In a major "I'm Spartacus" move, he claims to be Nizaemon Kumokiri himself.

Touched by his brother's sacrifice, Nizaemon returns the favor by spectacularly carrying out the Tsuji family's vengeance in Kuranosuke's place. It's an epic climax that rivals the intensity of the final facade-shattering slaughter in Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri. Of course, the common factor there is the tour-de-force performances of Tatsuya Nakadai.

One huge strength of Kumokiri Nizaemon is that it incorporates the excesses of of 1970s chambara – cartoonish arterial sprays, explicit sexuality, sleazy yakuza-oriented themes – without stooping to the level of exploitational pandering. The soundtrack is also redolent of the period, with some cheesy stock-music style dramatic cues during the action scenes. But Gosha also mixes in an offbeat Jew's harp theme during the flashbacks and key expository scenes, which is weirdly effective and memorable. The huge cast is excellent, practically a reunion of Gosha's all-time best actors. In addition to Nakadai, we have Tetsuro Tamba from Three Outlaw Samurai, Shima Iwashita from Sword of the Beast, and Isao Natsuyagi from the Samurai Wolf movies.

I'd have to say Kumokiri Nizaemon is the underrated jewel of Gosha's career. Most fans point to Tenchu as their favorite, but I personally find this one superior. It's beautifully filmed, the intrigue of the story captures my fascination from beginning to end, and Nakadai's criminal mastermind character is deeper and more multi-faceted than his similar role in Tenchu. So I'm going to take an unconventional stand and declare Kumokiri Nizaemon Hideo Gosha's masterpiece.

The Jidai-Geki Knights