Tenchu (1969)
Directed by Hideo Gosha

Starring Shintaro Katsu (Izo Okada), Tatsuya Nakadai (Hampeita Takechi), Yukio Mishima (Shimbei Tanaka), Yujiro Ishihara (Ryoma Sakamoto), Mitsuko Baisho (Onimo), Kunie Tanaka, Saburo Date
Screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto
Music by Masaru Sato

Daiei Studios, 140 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope
English-subtitled DVD: Samurai DVD

Tenchu presents a highly complicated story based on an actual group from Japanese history, the Tosa Loyalists, one of the many factions that struggled for power during the final years of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1860s. A general knowledge of Japan's political history is required to understand all the finer points of the plot events, since Hideo Gosha takes for granted that his native audience would remember all that stuff from school. Nonetheless, us uninitiated foreigners can still follow the main thrust of the story on simple terms: it's the rise and fall of a deadly but foolish samurai assassin named Izo Okada.

Okada is the last member recruited among the four leaders of the Tosa clan, who were known as the Hitokiri or "man-killers." Portrayed by Shintaro Katsu in the performance of his career outside of Zatoichi, Okada is a talented but naive swordsman who has never killed anyone at the start of the movie. Tosa ringleader Hampeita Takechi (Tatsuya Nakadai) takes on Okada as his protege and rapidly molds him into a vicious killing machine. With the winds of change sweeping through the country like a typhoon, Takechi continually issues orders to eliminate various political figures for reasons he keeps only to himself – whether he's steering well-crafted machinations or just being paranoid isn't always clear.

Once a target is marked for death, the Hitokiri and their underlings descend upon him slashing their swords, saying nothing but their brutal cry of "Tenchu!", which translates as "Heaven's punishment." Okada takes to his new profession as an assassin with great enthusiasm and pride, savoring his newfound wealth and "street cred" as a member of the fearsome Hitokiri elite. His ego balloons and he begins to take on aspirations of grandeur, even though he continues to spend his time living in squalor in the company of his favored prostitute, the sassy Onimo.

Okada is utterly naive and clueless about the politics the Tosa clan stands for. When one of the other members of the Hitokiri explains their opposition to the new world dawning in which social castes will be abolished and all men will be equal, Okada responds that such a state sounds pretty good to him. The savage assassin bears a futile infatuation for the daughter of a high-ranking aristocrat, and he muses that in a society without castes he will be able to leave Onimo and have her – never mind the fact that the noble lady cares nothing for him.

After an influential lord is offended by the savagery of Okada's killings, Takechi makes the strategic decision to exclude Okada from a major operation in Ishibe. When Okada gets word that the rest of the Hitokiri have already left town for the Ishibe assassination that evening, the dismayed Okada gets half-dressed, grabs his swords and takes off running on foot. It might have been a better idea to find a horse, but it's as if Okada has no time for rational thought. Quite comically, he runs the full marathon distance to Ishibe for hours non-stop, even running while he eats a snack and running in place while he reads a road sign. He arrives at the scene just as the Hitokiri attack is underway, stopping to drench himself with well water before entering the fray. Okada hacks away randomly, killing everyone in range of his blade. Forgetting the discreet cry of "Tenchu," he bellows to no one in particular, "I'm Okada Izo! Tosa's Okada Izo is here! I'm the disciple of Tosa Clan Loyalist Takechi Hanpeita!" Rarely has there been such a combination of buffoonery and bloodshed in the history of motion pictures. Seriously, Okada only lacks a spotted orange dog and a bowl of cheese dip to be a live-action version of Sergio Aragones's Groo the Wanderer.

Needless to say, Takechi is not very pleased with Okada's uninvited performance. Okada has foolishly broken the Hitokiri code of secrecy by identifying not only himself but Takechi and the Tosa clan in the middle of an assassination. The only surprising thing is that Takechi merely scolds Okada instead of having him killed right there. After Takechi learns of another indiscretion Okada has committed, the underling gets strict orders to do exactly as his master commands and nothing more. Okada's inflated vanity gets the best of him and he protests that he's not Takechi's dog. In a huff, he announces that he's leaving the Tosa clan and storms out.

This leads to the most memorable sequence of the movie as Okada, convinced that he's the greatest and most sought-after swordsman in Japan, heads out to find a position with another clan. We see him meeting with representatives of a number of clans who certainly seem to covet his services, but they're all much more fearful of offending Takechi. Everyone is savvy enough to know that Takechi will come down on them like a ton of bricks if they dare to hire his former muscle. Thus the great Okada is completely unemployable. It's a bitter scene that speaks to the fears of anyone who's ever pondered dim prospects if they quit their hated but secure job.

With his spirit crushed and his ego reduced back down to human proportions, Okada soon comes crawling back to Takechi, now willing to be an obedient dog. The Hitokiri welcome Okada back, but it's only so that Takechi can fulfill his master plan to exploit and betray Okada. In the end, Okada seizes the opportunity to choose his final fate on his own terms instead of dying as Takechi's slave.

Most fans generally name Tenchu as Gosha's crowning achievement, and it's easy to see why. It's truly a powerful statement on the depths of humanity's evil. Overall, though, I think the success of this movie owes more to the lead actor than to the director. Shintaro Katsu puts forth a dynamo performance that crackles with raw energy. With another actor in the role of Okada, I think Tenchu would have been merely good instead of a classic.

The Jidai-Geki Knights