Jirocho Sangokushi II: First Journey (1953)
Directed by Masahiro Makino

Jirocho Sangokushi II: First Journey
Jirocho sangokushi: Jirocho hatsutabi
Starring Akio Kobori (Jirocho), Setsuko Wakayama (Ocho), Seizaburo Kawazu (Omasa), Jun Tazaki (Onikichi), Haruo Tanaka (Daigoro), Kenji Mori (Tsunagoro), Hisaya Morishige (Ishimatsu), Kazuo Ishii (Senuemon), Torazo Hirosawa II (Torakichi), Kunitaro Sawamura (Okuma), Toranosuke Ogawa (Boss Wadajima), Sachio Sakai (Sataro), Eiko Miyoshi (Oaki), Yoshio Kosugi
Assistant Director: Kihachi Okamoto

Toho Company, 83 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.

The second Jirocho Sangokushi film features one of the most compelling opening sequences I've ever seen in a sequel. Imagine this: you've established a popular band of action heroes in your first movie. To kick off Part II, you have your heroes cornered in a small room at night, hiding out from a noisy throng of enemies clamoring for them outside. It's a thrilling Saturday matinee serial type of situation, where the tension builds and you're just dying for the good guys to burst out of the siege and make their stand.

To top it off, let's add a dash of tragic romance: Jirocho knows he's going to have to take his men on the road to steer clear of the police who are out for their blood, and he's going to be separated from his fiancee Ocho for an indeterminate time. So to prove their commitment, Jirocho and Ocho arrange an impromptu wedding while the barbarians are at the gate, so to speak. It's a deeply riveting scene that needs no subtitles to convey emotions.

On the road for their titular first journey, Jirocho and his men intervene in a revenge conflict involving a young yakuza named Senuemon. In time Senuemon will become part of Jirocho's crew, though their first encounters are on shaky ground.

Jirocho takes his men to stay with his old friend Sataro, an innkeeper. Sataro was prosperous in times past, but now his gambling habit has ruined him and left his inn in a dilapidated state. Even the filthy Daigoro complains about the shoddy accommodations. When Jirocho kindly gives Sataro a loan, Senuemon talks him into gambling it all away while his guests are sleeping. To make matters worse, Sataro and Senuemon pawn the sleeping men's clothing for more money, which they promptly lose as well. So Jirocho and his men end up merrily marching down the Tokaido Road in their underwear.

Instead of punishing Senuemon for bringing about this humiliating situation, Jirocho goes out of his way to help the young man out. He pays a visit to the parents of Oaki, Senuemon's girlfriend, to plead for their acceptance of this gangster as a suitor for their daughter. Then Jirocho goes to straighten things out with the yakuza group who are out to kill Senuemon under a misapprehension.

Lastly there's one more key figure introduced toward the end of First Journey: the legendary Mori no Ishimatsu. Even though our trusty narrator Torazo remains back home in Shimizu, his singing appears in the soundtrack to clue us into the significance of Ishimatsu's entrance. At this point in the narrative he's not yet the one-eyed avenger, being possessed of two healthy peepers. In this incarnation Ishimatsu's physical affliction is a profound stammer, which magically vanishes when he delivers a polished formal yakuza introduction to Jirocho's gang.

Hisaya Morishige is tremendous as Ishimatsu, portraying the role with a more serious approach than typically seen in later Jirocho films. The likes of Shintaro Katsu and Kinnosuke Nakamura generally make Ishi more of a cantankerous buffoon, but Morishige plays him more earnest and pensive, with just a streak of berserker rage. I can't judge with authority until I see the series with subtitles, but I think his version is most likely the definitive Ishimatsu, beating out my previous favorite in the role, Shintaro Katsu.

The Jidai-Geki Knights