Evil Man of Edo (1959)
Directed by Masahiro Makino

Evil Man of Edo
Edo no akutaro
Starring Ryutaro Otomo (Sanshiro), Keiko Okawa (Namino/Senkichi), Chizuru Kitagawa (Ei), Jun Tazaki (Hyosuke), Isao Yamagata (Akiyama), Masao Mishima (Doman), Shunji Sakai (Mohei), Atsushi Watanabe (Kyuzaemon Teshirogi), Kunio Kaga (Arimura), Tatsuya Ishiguro (Sanzan), Sumiko Kaji (Sumi), Chieko Naniwa (Okan), Tomohito Sumida (Yaichi)

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

Evil Man of Edo is a highly enjoyable Toei jidai-geki romp combining the comic storytelling skills of Masahiro Makino with the lighthearted performance of Ryutaro Otomo. The two seem like an ideal director/actor pairing, though this is the only Makino film in my collection with Otomo in the lead role.

Otomo plays Sanshiro, an affable ronin turned schoolteacher in a poor section of Edo. He takes in a boy called Sankichi as his servant and assistance, not realizing that Sankichi is actually a girl named Namino (Keiko Okawa) who fled her wealthy family to escape an arranged wedding. As Sankichi, she gradually comes to know Sanshiro and his colorful collection of neighbors, who play to Masahiro Makino's strength at juggling a large ensemble cast. Among them are the poor single mother Oei, the toad oil salesman Hyosuke, the alcoholic female pickpocket Sumi, the kindly landlord Mohei, and the sly old lady Okan who runs a loan shark business. This ragtag assortment is played by a choice group of familar character actors who are reliably fun to watch.

Namino's rich father, grandfather and great-grandfather come to Edo hunting for her, but they're really more like cartoonish buffoons than bad guys out to punish the runaway bride. The villains of the movie are Doman the crooked fortune teller and his wealthy patron Akiyama. Their alleged supernatural services are conning the people of Edo out of huge sums of money, and they plot to drive out Sanshiro's neighbors in order to build Doman a temple. Doman also exploits his gullible female clients for sexual favors. Really, either Doman or Akiyama could fill the bill as the titular evil man of Edo. They seize upon Namino's relatives as easy marks ripe for plucking, promising to mystically divine the lost girl's whereabouts in exchange for hundreds upons hundreds of ryo.

Inevitably, Sanshiro makes a stand against the psychic friends network's deceit and oppression, aiming to unmask Doman as a fraud and spare his neighborhood from eviction. When the story takes a unexpectedly dark turn, Makino expertly navigates the change in dramatic tone and steers it back into sunny territory with a "let's put on a show" climax, capped by a swordfighting finale.

The whole crew of compelling characters keeps Evil Man of Edo entertaining throughout, but there is one standout in particular. I believe this is Keiko Okawa's best role that I've seen her in, even though she's posing as a boy for nearly the whole film. Okawa is kind of a bland actress, typically playing meek and unremarkable women, but here she really shines. It was shrewd casting to put a "girly" actress like her in a gender-bending role, yielding funnier results than a more tomboyish actress (see Hibari Misora) who is well at ease playing male. Scenes like Sanshiro literally rolling up Sankichi in bedcovers burrito-style are just hilarious, and then in the final outcome between the unlikely couple, the fully revealed Namino transforms into one of the most adorable things you've ever seen. Awww, ain't she sweet?

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