Samurai Banners (1969)
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki

Samurai Banners
Furin kazan
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Kansuke), Kinnosuke Nakamura (Shingen Takeda), Yoshiko Sakuma (Princess Yu), Yujiro Ishihara (Uesugi), Takashi Shimura (Toramasa)
Screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto and Takeo Kunihiro
Cinematography by Kazuo Yamada
Music by Masaru Sato

Toho Company, 165 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: AnimEigo (Out of print)

Though Hiroshi Inagaki enjoyed a long and accomplished film career, it's been said that there were only two entries in his resume that he was completely happy with: his famous Samurai trilogy and 1969's Samurai Banners. This was a dream project Inagaki spent many years planning, and happily it came to fruition as his penultimate film and must have had the biggest budget of all his movies. Though he previously mounted some respectably epic battle scenes in Daredevil in the Castle and Whirlwind, this time he takes the on-location action extravaganzas to a new level. The lavish production was made possible through the director's friendship with Toshiro Mifune, who both starred and produced the film through his own company.

The opening sequence, shot in black and white as if in tribute to classic jidai-geki conventions, introduces Mifune as a shrewd ronin named Kansuke Yamamoto. Kansuke convinces another ronin to feign an attack on a passing vassal from the Takeda clan, then Kansuke will come to the rescue. Once the vassal is impressed with their swordsmanship, Kansuke says, they'll drop their pretense and get offered employment. Of course, Kansuke slaughters the other ronin and ends up the sole beneficiary of the demonstration.

The vassal gives Kansuke a position and takes him to meet his lord, Takeda Shingen, a real 16th century historical figure who battled for control of Japan prior the Tokugawa reign. Shingen has appeared in loads of jidai-geki films, including Kurosawa's Kagemusha in which he was portrayed by Tatsuya Nakadai. Here the role is capably handled by Kinnosuke Nakamura. The original Japanese title of Samurai Banners is Furin kazan, which refers to the four characters on the Takeda clan's banner, Fuu-Rin-Ka-Zan, which represent the clan's martial ideals: "swift as the wind, silent as a forest, fierce as fire and immovable as a mountain."

Kansuke quickly becomes a trusted advisor to Shingen, convincing the warlord to expand his domain into the province of Siwa and demonstrating masterful military strategy time and again. Kansuke professes a longtime dream of seeing a united Japan under one rule and believes Shingen has the power to make it happen. Complicating his ambitions, Kansuke falls in love with Princess Yu of the subjugated Siwa clan, but it's politically expedient for her to become Shingen's concubine and bear him an heir. So he suffers the heartache of his love remaining near but out of reach. Ultimately, Yu confesses to Kansuke that her burning desire is to kill Shingen in revenge for murdering her father. So you can see Kansuke has some serious issues to deal with.

Through all of this major drama, there's a nice human element running through the story in the form of Buhei, a farmer who insults and demeans Kansuke upon their first meeting. Impressed with Buhei's spirit, Kansuke chooses Buhei as his personal spearman, and they remain together all the way to the end. We also see Kansuke's avuncular tenderness toward young Lord Katsuyori, the son of Shingen and Princess Yu. Interestingly, we see Katsuyori as a grown man in Kagemusha, and Samurai Banners serves as a prequel to shed light on the character's psychological troubles as an adult.

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