Kingdom of Jirocho (1963)
Directed by Masahiro Makino

Kingdom of Jirocho
Jirocho Sangokushi
Starring Koji Tsuruta (Jirocho), Yoshiko Sakuma (Ocho), Shingo Yamashiro (Onikichi), Minoru Oki (Omasa), Hiroki Matsukata (Tsunagoro), Haruo Tanaka (Daigoro), Junko Fuji (Osen), Kyoko Mikage, Kinuko Obata, Shinobu Chihara (Toku), Shunji Sakai (Shunkichi)

Toei Company, 102 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

A decade after his epic nine-part Toho series Jirocho Sangokushi, Masahiro Makino embarked on remaking his masterwork at Toei. Known by the English title Kingdom of Jirocho, this retread differs from the original by being in color and widescreen with a (mostly) younger generation of stars. The story is largely the same but condensed, with each of the four episodes covering one and a half of the original films. Many of the memorable exterior location scenes have been reshot on soundstages under lower budgets reflecting the 1960s decline of the jidai-geki genre. Any aficionado would agree that Makino's Toho series is far superior, but the subtitled Kingdom of Jirocho has immense value as a Rosetta Stone to interpret the untranslated original.

In this series the role of Jirocho goes to Koji Tsuruta, an actor best known for playing modern-day yakuza and Musashi's rival Kojiro in Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai trilogy. Tsurata does a great job of portraying the reserved calm of the legendary boss, along with the appropriate youth for this story of how Jirocho got his start in the yakuza world.

After being on the road for two years, Jirocho returns to Shimizu and is reunited with his wife Ocho. Jirocho's uncle Wadajima and brother-in-law Okuma, themselves yakuza bosses, warn him against the hardships of life as an outlaw. But Jirocho asserts that he will find a positive path for himself as "a good selfless yakuza."

In a roundabout manner, Jirocho goes about building his crew. First the eager Onikichi offers his loyalty as the first of Jirocho's men, even before the young boss thinks he's ready to take on underlings. Next come the gunslinging Tsunagoro and the spear-wielding former samurai Omasa. Along the way we get the classic scene of Onikichi cheerfully carrying his own coffin as one messenger duty, assuming that Jirocho's rival boss will kill him. This comic routine plays out not only in the original Jirocho Sangokushi but also in later adaptations such as Sadatsugu Matsuda's A Chivalrous Spirit.

The next member of Jirocho's gang to come along is Hoin Daigoro, the itinerant monk, though his name is never given in the subtitles. Haruo Tanaka reprises his role as Daigoro, making him the only star connecting both the Toho and Toei versions of Jirocho Sangokushi, much like Anthony Daniels as See-Threepio in both Star Wars trilogies. In another casting item of note, the comic actor Shunji Sakai steps into the formidable shoes of Torazo Hirosawa II as the singing vassal. Since the original character was named "Torakichi" for Torazo, here he is appropriately rechristened "Shunkichi" for Shunji.

Jirocho's men have to leave Shimizu and go on the lam following a police raid. This incident serves as the opening scene in the 1953 Jirocho Sangokushi II: First Journey, with the major difference between that Jirocho and Ocho have their wedding during the scene. Since the couple are already married from the start in this version, the police raid loses much of its dramatic potency here.

On the road Jirocho enlists another unlikely member into his gang, an unscrupulous young gambler named Senuemon. The final act of the film plays out the familiar incident of Sataro's inn, where the host gambles away Jirocho's men's clothes while they're sleeping. A similar episode having different character names and details appears in Matsuda's Road of Chivalry.

Kingdom of Jirocho closes with Sataro's admiring proclamation that Jirocho will one day be the greatest boss of the Tokaido Road, in ironic counterpoint with the spectacle of the not-so-heroic image of the yakuza gang running along in their underwear. As a little taste of what's to come next, Ishimatsu makes a cameo appearance wondering who those crazy naked guys might be.

The Toei Jirocho Sangokushi redux continues for three further films. I now own them all on DVDs direct from Japan, though without English-subtitles. I plan to study and interpret them more extensively before posting commentaries.

The Jidai-Geki Knights