The Secret of the Urn (1966)
Directed by Hideo Gosha

The Secret of the Urn
Tange Sazen: Hien iaigiri
Starring Kinnosuke Nakamura (Tange Sazen), Isao Kimura (Genzaburo Yagyu), Keiko Awaji (Ofuji), Tetsuro Tamba (Tsushima Yagyu), Wakaba Irie (Hagino)
Screenplay by Hideo Gosha and Kei Tasaka

Toei Company, 91 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope
English-subtitled DVD: AnimEigo

The Secret of the Urn marked a curious career move for Hideo Gosha. It's his first movie in color, following his successful use of atmospheric black and white in Three Outlaw Samurai, Sword of the Beast and the yakuza feature Cash Calls Hell. But with that step toward more modern film technology, Gosha is also connecting to the past by adapting the Tange Sazen character, a mainstay of chambara dating back to silent films and Sadao Yamanaka's classic 1935 version. It seems surprising that such a rebellious and unconventional filmmaker would choose such "old school" subject matter.

This could have been a commercial move motivated by money, but since Gosha has been characterized as a lifelong fan of swordplay movies, it was more likely a childhood dream come true for him to make his own Tange Sazen movie – like Tim Burton doing Batman. Following that same comparison, Yamanaka's Tange Sazen version was the Adam West version (which I say with all due respect to Yamanaka-san, since I love his movie the best), whereas Gosha delivers the Dark Knight reinterpetation. All the basic elements of the legend are still there, only rearranged in a more brutal and bloody configuration.

The Secret of the Urn opens with a pre-credits sequence showing us the Tange Sazen "origin story." In a surprise ambush, samurai Tange Samanesuke is betrayed by an old friend and the rest of his clan. They slash him across the face, blinding his right eye, then they chop off his right arm and leave him for dead. But he survives, transformed into the maniacal and monstrous white-robed ronin now known as Tange Sazen, whose sword skills remain deadly despite his severe injuries.

As the title reveals, The Secret of the Urn retells the story of the pot worth a million ryo, which is the tale most associated with Tange Sazen. Gosha creates a predicament that leads the Yagyu clan to need big cash: they've been railroaded into paying to renovate a temple, and the expense would bankrupt them. A clan elder informs them of an heirloom urn that contains a map to a hidden cache of one million ryo in emergency funds. The Yagyu easily locate the pot, but it gets hijacked by thieves and ends up in the hands of a young boy.

The major difference regarding Gosha's million ryo pot compared to the classic Yamanaka version is that here everyone always knows the value of the pot and they all pursue it from the get-go. Yamanaka wrung lots of entertaining tension from having characters mistake the pot for a worthless piece of junk, but all that irony is missing from the Gosha remake. Plus, Gosha makes Genzaburo Yagyu a formidable opponent instead of a lazy buffoon, and Ofuji is a cruel thief instead of the sassy owner of an archery parlor. And oddly, Hagino was previously the name of Genzaburo's wife, but here Hagino is Tange Sazen's girlfriend from before his gruesome injuries. When she tracks him down in his new identity, Sazen heartbreakingly casts her away, feeling that he is now too much of a monster to continue his romantic ties with this beautiful woman.

The rest of the story unfolds in a typical '60s chambara manner, with Sazen refusing to relinquish his possession of the urn out of spite and amusement, having little concern for the political and monetary agendas swirling all around it. There are the standard swordfight sequences as various attackers attempt to wrest the urn from the one-armed madman. The most satisfying wrinkle in the story comes when Tange Sazen makes a big scene at the shogun's fancy tea ceremony and foils all of the bad guys' schemes by shouting out the truth for the shogun to hear. It makes you realize how many evil plots in the whole of jidai-geki could be easily ruined if the hero just had the opportunity to yell at the applicable shogun or daimyo.

The Secret of the Urn is entertaining but only a trifle compared to Gosha's more ambitious films, and it certainly doesn't hold a candle to the sublime Yamanaka version. Some characters just work better in a lightweight and humorous treatment, and I don't think Tange Sazen really holds up to the dramatic load Gosha attempted to shovel on him. If nothing else, it's easier to overlook a "one-armed" hero hiding one arm across his stomach in a comedy than in an action drama. Kinnosuke Nakamura never played Tange Sazen again, though Gosha later remade virtually the same script in a fairly pointless made-for-TV movie in 1982 starring Tatsuya Nakadai.

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