Yagyu Secret Scrolls, Part I (1957)
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki

Yagyu Secret Scrolls, Part I
Yagyu bugeicho
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Tasaburo), Koji Tsuruta (Senshiro), Yoshiko Kuga (Princess Yu), Denjiro Okochi (Lord Yagyu), Senjaku Nakamura (Matajuro), Akihiko Hirata (Tomonori), Kyoko Kagawa (Oki), Mariko Okada (Rika), Eijiro Tono (Fugetsusai), Akio Kobori (Izu-no-Kami), Bokuzen Hidari (Okubo)
Screenplay by Hiroshi Inagaki and Takeshi Kimura

Toho Company, 111 minutes
Color, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

Hiroshi Inagaki's two-part Yagyu Secret Scrolls series gives us a rare opportunity to see Toshiro Mifune playing a ninja. Unfortunately, that and some notable casting are about the most that can be said about these subpar chambara melodramas. The secret scrolls of the title are are your typical rotten old MacGuffin, three mysterious documents which – only when combined – reveal dark secrets of the Yagyu clan that could spell disaster and upheaval. Exactly what those secrets are, and why the Yagyu doesn't just destroy the scrolls instead of leaving them around for enemies to steal and use against them – we don't know and doesn't matter. They're just an excuse for an excuse for rival ninja clans to get pissed off and fight each other.

Mifune stars as Tasaburo, a ninja of the Kasumi clan along with his brother Senshiro (Koji Tsuruta, who played Kojiro in Inagaki's Samurai trilogy). Their master Fugetsusai orders them to track down the secret scrolls to expose the crimes of the evil Yagyu clan. One of the scrolls has been acquired by the members of the good Ryuzoji clan, who hope to use it in a blackmail scheme to reform their unjustly abolished clan. In Tasaburo's efforts to wrangle the scroll from the Ryuzoji's Princess Yu, he finds himself falling in love with her.

Meanwhile, the sinister Lord Yagyu sends his ninja minions to retrieve the missing scrolls, led by his sons Jubei, Matajuro and Tomonori and his daughter Oki. Another one of the scrolls has somehow ended up in the possession of Okubo "the old raccoon," a justice-minded official who opposes the Yagyu clan, though Okubo doesn't know he has it. Lord Yagyu cooks up a scheme for Matajuro to disguise himself as Princess Yu in order to infiltrate Okubo's home and get the scroll. For some reason, dressing up in drag requires a man to have his teeth knocked out and replaced with false ones. It must be that people in feudal Japan could easily distinguish between masculine teeth and feminine teeth. So Matajuro consents to having some extreme dental work done and successfully fools Okubo into thinking he's the beautiful Princess Yu. But when the real princess shows up along with Tasaburo and Senshiro, the mission gets botched.

Frustrated by his failure and his father's refusal to tell him the secrets of the scrolls, Matajuro gets angry and leaves the Yagyu clan and his girlfriend Rika. And who could blame the guy, after having his teeth chiseled out of his head and still getting no respect? He takes off and his story picks up in the sequel.

Tasaburo also gets the bum's rush when Fugetsusai banishes him from the Kasumi ninja for being distracted by his personal feelings for Princess Yu. Senshiro is dispatched to kill Tasaburo, but he lets his brother win the match and escape. This duel could be a thrill for Samurai trilogy fans to see Musashi and Kojiro in a rematch, but it's a pretty weak fight. Now that he's a free agent, Tasaburo is able to pursue his own interests and protect Princess Yu in the big showdown between the Yagyu and the allied forces of the Ryuzoji and the Kasumi.

But sadly it's all quite a forgettable affair, marred by a lackluster plot and some terribly poor swordfighting scenes. The ninja element is definitely more on the fantasy side than the realism side, with Tasaburo throwing smoke bombs at pursuing enemies who overreact as if a napalm blast went off. The one saving grace of the movie is the casting. Aside from Mifune, we're treated to a trio of veteran jidai-geki legends. The great Denjiro Okochi stars as Lord Yagyu, character actor Eijiro Tono plays Fugetsusai, and everybody's favorite old codger Bokuzen Hidari gets a meaty role as Okubo, the old raccoon who thinks a dude with no teeth in a wig and a kimino looks pretty hot.

The Jidai-Geki Knights