Whirlwind (1964)
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki

Shikonmado - Dai tatsumaki
Starring Shogoro Ichikawa (Jubei), Makoto Sato (Shuri), Yosuke Natsuki (Hisanosuke), Yuriko Hoshi (Kozato), Yoshiko Kuga (Kikusato), Kumi Mizuno (Orie), Akira Kubo (Daijiro), Yoshio Inaba (Washio), Jotaro Togami (Muto), Akihiko Hirata (Matazaemon), Mitsuko Kusabue (The nun), Toshiro Mifune (Akashi)
Screenplay by Hiroshi Inagaki and Takeshi Kimura

Toho Company, 108 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

I've only seen a fraction of Hiroshi Inagaki's massive film output, but out of those Whirlwind is far and away my favorite. There's no question it lacks the level of serious ambition and artistry you can find in his revered Samurai trilogy or Samurai Banners, but this movie offers massive loads of pure entertainment. Whirlwind is definitely more of a Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark than a Citizen Kane, the sort of movie I can gladly watch over and over again, packed with fun little pieces that always bring a smile to my face.

The best thing about Whirlwind is that it contains just about every key ingredient that makes for great, exciting chambara all mixed together in under two hours of running time. It opens in the middle of a giant battle. It's got a couple of lowly ronin who unexpectedly set off on a mission to help a fugitive princess. It's got a psychopathic ronin who asks passing strangers if they're "lucky or unlucky" and kills them regardless of their answer. It's got estranged lovers with mysterious pasts, a duo of ultra-slimy backstabbing villains, and a plot to ambush a secret convoy of government gold. But wait, there's more – it's also got ninjas! Real ninjas, complete with black robes, smoke bombs and a sworn blood vendetta against our hero because he killed their patriarch.

Plus there's one last thing. It's got Toshiro Mifune. He plays a small supporting role, but a little Mifune is all you need to complete the checklist of requisites for a bona fide chambaraclassic.

Whirlwind has a complex storyline featuring a large cast of characters and plenty of plot twists to keep track of, but the overall theme is simple to grasp. It's about the many ways in which war changes people's lives, and how we have the free will to make good choices or bad choices despite whatever hardships fate may bring.

The setting of the opening battle is the historic fall of the Toyotomi clan's Osaka Castle. Because Inagaki's 1961 Daredevil in the Castle tells the story of Osaka Castle leading up to this battle, Whirlwind is sometimes described as its sequel, but the two films have no characters in common and only share a common historical timeframe. We meet three soldiers on the losing Osaka side: Jubei, Shuri and Hisanosuke. Faced with the prospect of now being unemployed ronin, each of them sets off on a different path.

Shuri wants to keep fighting to the death even in the face of futility. After he ends up coming out alive, Shuri loses his marbles and becomes the randomly homicidal "street killer." Hisanosuke, on the other hand, chooses to run away and start a new life as a merchant, shrewdly amassing considerable wealth in short order. Lastly, Jubei declares he will commit seppuku at the scene of their fallen castle, carefully selecting a spot with the ideal view and ambiance. But fate intervenes upon Jubei's "perfect death" when Princess Kozato from the castle prevails upon him for help. She has managed to smuggle the Young Lord Kunimatsu out alive and needs Jubei to protect the child on their journey to safe refuge.

Inagaki uses Jubei's predicament to have some fun with contradictions surrounding samurai honor, or misinterpretations thereof. Jubei's premise for choosing seppuku is that his clan is defeated and he no longer has a lord to serve. Then it transpires that nobles from his clan have survived and need his assistance, and this new duty should negate the necessity for his ritual suicide. But throughout the rest of the film, Jubei bemoans his missed opportunity to kill himself at the perfect time and place. He doesn't even consider the possibility that he could still kill himself after his mission for princess and the Young Lord is completed – it's as if the train has left the station, and a postponed seppuku could never be as glorious. We definitely get an unusual variation on the Joseph Campbell hero's journey, with our protagonist hesitant to answer the call to adventure because he wanted to die instead. It's difficult to tell, though, just how sincere Jubei is about his regrets. He may be inwardly thankful that the princess thwarted his plans, and "protesting too much" is his way of saving face by assuring anyone who'll listen that he really, seriously did want to kill himself, big time. The whole situation become a hilarious running gag – it's one of the few instances in where you'll find big laughs based on the concept of seppuku.

Jubei's reluctant service as yojimbo to the regal refugees goes from bad to worse when a squad of ninja assassins attacks. Whirlwind was the first "serious" jidai-geki film I ever saw that included ninjas, and I was quite taken with their appearance at the time. This was before my exposure to legitimate ninja films like Shinobi No Mono and Ninja Hunt, when I thought ninjas were restricted to cheesy grindhouse movies and bad American conceptions of Japanese martial arts. Of course, now I know better.

Unfortunately, enemy soldiers soon track the fugitives to their hiding place and seize the young lord. The despondent Kozato wants to kill herself for failing to keep him safe. Now Jubei finds himself talking someone else out of committing suicide. They both finally decide it's best to go on living, and are about to go their separate ways when the ninjas attack again. Orie the kunoichi (female ninja) is out for vengeance since Jubei killed her father in the escape from Osaka Castle.

After the ninjas capture Jubei with the intention of killing him, a mysterious ronin with his face hidden behind a wicker basket helmet (played by Mifune) comes out of nowhere to rescue him. Named Akashi, this guy is such a total bad-ass that he doesn't need a sword – he uses a bamboo flute as his weapon. The ronin warns Jubei that he is treating life too lightly and neglecting his duty to protect the woman: "Be careful not to be swept up in a big tornado and lose sight of your own path," Akashi intones before moving on.

Next Jubei runs into some former associates from the castle who get him and Kozato involved with a group of Toyotomi loyalists. The group raids the scheduled execution of the young lord, with the ninjas and Akashi joining the fray for good measure. Oddly, there's never any further mention of what happens to the young lord after that. History tells us that Toyotomi Kunimatsu was executed by Tokugawa forces at the age of 7, so my guess is that Inagaki felt it would be too grim for Whirlwind to dwell on his fate.

In the chaos, Jubei and Kozato get separated. Kozato seeks safe haven at the temple where her aunt is a nun. Akashi comes along and reveals that he was once engaged to Kozato's aunt, before she was forced to become a nun to gain political immunity. Facing the same opportunity, Kozato decides she can't do it because she loves Jubei. Akashi urges her not to throw her love away like they did years ago. And Kozato isn't the only one suddenly falling head over heels for Jubei. The crazy kunoichi Orie runs across Jubei once again, and this time she decides she's in love with him too. Somehow the two women end up searching for Jubei together.

In fact, all the many diverse characters and plot strands end up getting woven together in the movie's third act, in a contrived and unlikely manner that's nevertheless entertaining to watch. Jubei meets back up with his old comrades Shuri and Hisanosuke, who have both changed drastically and both get caught up on the side of Jubei's enemies. Kozato and Orie meet up with him once again, and of course Akashi and his bamboo flute of vengeance aren't far behind. There's so much evil and so much tension all converging on this one fateful rendezvous point that you just feel like the typical chambara showdown just ain't gonna be enough to wrap it up. The situation calls for something properly cataclysmic and apocalyptic, and that's what we get.

Mother Nature takes care of business in the form of a furious tornado, as referenced in the movie's title. It doesn't come across as a cheap deus ex machina so much as a grand cathartic relief. The finale evokes the concept of divine wind as in the original meaning of the word kamikaze. But what it really reminds me of is what happened to the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. We even have one of our heroes surviving the maelstrom intact by virtue of virtue of being tied town to a tree while all hell breaks loose. Fitting conclusions to two different epic adventures that I never get tired of watching.

The Jidai-Geki Knights