Jirocho Sangokushi (1952)
Directed by Masahiro Makino

Jirocho Sangokushi
Jirocho sangokushi: nagurikomi kojinyama
Starring Akio Kobori (Jirocho), Setsuko Wakayama (Ocho), Jun Tazaki (Onikichi), Seizaburo Kawazu (Omasa), Haruo Tanaka (Daigoro), Kenji Mori (Tsunagoro), Torazo Hirosawa II (Torakichi), Toranosuke Ogawa (Boss Wadajima), Kunitaro Sawamura (Okuma), Yoshiko Hirose (Nui), Hideo Shibuya, Akira Tani, Shin Otomo
Assistant Director: Kihachi Okamoto

Toho Company, 82 minutes
B&W, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Not available

DISCLAIMER: The following commentary is based on the Jirocho Sangokushi DVD sets without English subtitles that I ordered direct from Japan. Based on my Jirocho knowledge and extensive detective work, I have figured out the gist of the movie but undoubtedly have details wrong. Corrections and insights are welcome.

Masahiro Makino could rightly be considered the master of Shimizu no Jirocho movies. He made more films about the chivalrous yakuza boss than any other director, dating back to the 1930s. In the brief span of 1952 to 1954, Makino pumped out the nine-part Jirocho Sangokushi series based on a novel by Genzo Murakami (the title means Jirocho's Tales of Three Provinces). These are generally considered to be the definitive films of the Jirocho legend, and they have even been listed among the prestigious Kinema Junpo list of greatest Japanese films, alongside the likes of Kurosawa and Ozu.

Jirocho Sangokushi stars Akio Kobori as the genial, charismatic yakuza boss just starting out his career in the inaugural 1952 episode. The baby-faced Kobori makes a fine Jirocho with a presence comparable to a young Chiezo Kataoka, though sadly never had much of a career beyond the Jirocho Sangokushi series and fell into obscurity. Bringing more star power to the series is Torazo Hirosawa II, a legendary singer and storyteller comparable to a Bing Crosby or Dean Martin. Torazo was known as a raconteur of Jirocho legends in his distinctive rokyoku style, so it was a coup for Makino to get him to appear as the storyteller figure, a character that's even named "Torakichi" after him (and I think sometimes they just call him "Torazo" straight up). You can also see what a big deal he is by how prominently he features in the movie posters. Ostensibly a house servant in the employ of Jirocho's mentor Boss Okuma, Torazo also plays a meta-role with his disembodied, droning song-chants narrating various turns in the action like a Greek chorus.

Though I'm watching this series without the benefit of English subtitles, I can make out the gist of this first one fairly well thanks to my familiarity with the 1963 remake known as Kingdom of Jirocho. The general plot movement in the two version are largely identical, but the original has a unique opening sequence depicting Jirocho's disreputable beginnings in the harbor town of Shimizu. We meet the young troublemaker then known as Chogoro passed out from drinking with Torakichi, then getting into a brawl and running around acting the fool. Chogoro later sobers up to have a heart-to-heart with his pretty fiancee Ocho, vowing to quit drinking and make something of himself. And so he sets off on his journey toward his destiny as boss of the Tokaido.

Chogoro returns to Shimizu a couple of years later, having learned about the yakuza trade and adopting the yakuza name of Jirocho. He reunites with the loyal love Ocho and consults with his uncle Wadajima and Ocho's brother Okuma, both veteran yakuza, about his ambitions to establish himself in their profession. The eager rookie yakuza Onikichi offers his loyalty as the first of Jirocho's men, pledging his allegiance after Jirocho saves him from a gang of dishonest gamblers. At first Jirocho is reluctant to take him on because he doesn't have the means to support underlings yet. But he finally agrees, and Onikichi takes a part-time job with a cooper across the way to help out with money.

Tsunagoro becomes the next to join the crew, first appearing as a messenger delivering a challenge to Jirocho from a rival boss. When Jirocho sends Onikichi as his messenger to accept the challenge, Onikichi takes along a coffin barrel from the cooper's shop. It's hilarious because Onikichi isn't at all morose or cowardly in carrying his own coffin to his expected death, he's absolutely thrilled with the idea. The gunslinging Tsunagoro respects Onikichi's courage and decides Jirocho is the boss he'd rather serve. In a subplot that unfolds over the next several films, Onikichi and Tsunagoro both fall in love with the same girl, a pretty maid named Osen.

Next the ronin Omasa shows up seeking the up-and-coming Boss Jirocho he's heard about. Omasa has grown weary of the samurai life and decides to become a yakuza. Jirocho welcomes the spear master destined to serve as Jirocho's strongest henchman and de facto lieutenant.

As Jirocho and his budding band are rushing off to aid Jirocho's uncle Wadajima in a confrontation, a filthy, disheveled monk named Hoin Daigoro tags along. With his wild bushy hair and bad smell, Daigoro isn't much appreciated by the gang at first, but in time he becomes an official member of the family. The movie ends with Jirocho peaceably moderating a potentially massive conflict between Wadajima and a rival boss. Jirocho's resourcefulness here is a major stepping stone in establishing his credibility in the yakuza world.

Even without subtitles, this first Jirocho Sangokushi film is a pleasure to watch thanks to Masahiro Makino's sheer visual storytelling artistry. The performances are wonderful, with Jun Tazaki, Seizaburo Kawazu and Haruo Tanaka in particular bringing charisma and charm to Jirocho's men. This is the seminal template that all subsequent films of the Jirocho legend can plainly be traced back to.

The Jidai-Geki Knights