Jirocho Sangokushi III: Jirocho and Ishimatsu (1953)
Directed by Masahiro Makino

Jirocho Sangokushi III: Jirocho and Ishimatsu
Jirocho sangokushi: Jirocho to Ishimatsu
Starring Akio Kobori (Jirocho), Hisaya Morishige (Ishimatsu), Asami Kuji (Onaka), Seizaburo Kawazu (Omasa), Jun Tazaki (Onikichi), Haruo Tanaka (Daigoro), Kenji Mori (Tsunagoro), Kazuo Ishii (Senuemon), Hiroshi Koizumi (Sangoro), Torazo Hirosawa II (Torakichi), Setsuko Wakayama (Ocho), Kunitaro Sawamura (Okuma), Gen Shimizu, Hideo Shibuya, Hironobu Wakamoto
Assistant Director: Kihachi Okamoto

Toho Company, 87 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 third entry in the classic Jirocho Sangokushi series is a remarkably surprising and unconventional sequel. From the title Jirocho and Ishimatsu you might expect it would be all about those two characters having adventures together and forming their boss/henchman bond, having just met at the end of the previous episode. In fact, Jirocho and Ishimatsu barely have any screen time together. More alarming, Jirocho and his men are actually absent for half of the movie! It seems like a risky story choice when the audience wants to see the popular main heroes, but I guess we can take this as evidence that Ishimatsu has a sufficient fan following of his own.

The stammering yakuza parts ways with Jirocho and his men at the outset. It's apparent Ishimatsu would like to join them on their journey back to Shimizu, but he has some sort of pressing business to attend to. He meets up with a friend named Sangoro and they end up staying at an inn. Without subtitles, I can't quite follow what they're up to. Their story could have become a chore to sit through if not for the entrance of a fascinating new character: the mysterious and seductive lady gambler Onaka.

A traveling shamisen player by day, Onaka moonlights as a cho-han dice roller, working the gambling parlor at Ishimatsu and Sangoro's inn. And she is immensely talented at what she does. Watching her roll dice is mesmerizing, and apparently she exploits her beauty to distract and outwit her gamblers. Ishimatsu falls under Onaka's spell like a lovestruck teenager, and she manages to clean out his wallet.

Onaka is marvelously portrayed by Asami Kuji, an actress I have not seen in other films, much to my regret. Likewise, Onaka is a character I was not previously familiar with from other Jirocho movies. The closest match would be Osen the Constrictor, the con artist who swindles Ishimatsu in Jirocho Fuji. So I was expecting Onaka to turn out to be a villain, but her character is actually much more complex. She voluntarily returns the money she won from Ishimatsu and Sangoro (or cheated them out of). There is an air of sadness and fallen majesty about Onaka that makes her compelling beyond words and beyond language barriers.

Just when we've nearly forgotten that this is a Jirocho movie, the boss man himself reappears as his men try their luck at gambling in Onaka's parlor. Jirocho and Omasa want to have a word with Onaka for some reason, but before they can get very far in their conversation, the police raid the gambling hall. Jirocho submits rather than fighting and our heroes get thrown into jail.

Their imprisonment leads to a classic Jirocho set piece that plays well as a pantomime. Jirocho's gang runs afoul of the fearsome bearded "boss" of the prison cell, acquiescing to take paddlings from his underlings and behave submissively. But then they take note of a sick elderly prisoner being denied food and bedding by the boss. That just won't do. So Jirocho and his crew flex their gangster muscle to unseat the alpha dog and assert their dominance, in order to take care of the old man. This very funny scene serves as a metaphor for Jirocho's chivalrous yakuza philosophy. Within the prescribed society of gangsters, Jirocho is willing to play by the rules, know his place and avoid trouble. But when there is injustice and oppression of the innocent and helpless, Jirocho stands willing and able to kick as much ass as necessary.

To round out the story, Torakichi the balladeer makes a surprise appearance. The distinctive drone of his rokyoku singing fills the opening credits and peppers various moments in the soundtrack. Then we hear his voice while Onaka is walking along the road, and it turns out that this time it's not just a cinematic device -- that guy strolling past Onaka is Torakichi, live and in the flesh! What could have caused him to venture out from Shimizu on his own? Turns out Torakichi has urgent news for Jirocho, and he has to get himself arrested and jailed in order to deliver it. His own master, Jirocho's brother-in-law Boss Okuma, is on the brink of major conflict with the rival Boss Kurokoma. It's imperative for Jirocho to get back home to help out. And this sets up the cliffhanger for our next exciting episode, Jirocho Sangokushi IV: All Gathered at Shimizu Harbor.

Although I have the complete set of nine non-subtitled films, I'm not yet comfortable enough with my understanding of them to comment on the rest of the series at this point. I will make updates after devoting more research and detective work into decrypting them.

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