The Newcomer to Shimizu (1960)
Directed by Masahiro Makino

The Newcomer to Shimizu
Kenka gasa
Starring Hashizo Okawa (Masa), Satomi Oka (Oyuki), Denjiro Okochi (Jirocho), Shunji Sakai (Kuma), Michiyo Kogure, Eitaro Shindo, Chizuru Kitagawa

Toei Company, 84 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi, Samurai DVD (TV broadcast quality)

The Newcomer to Shimizu tells an offbeat story intersecting with key pieces of the Shimizu no Jirocho legend. Jirocho and his men are supporting characters secondary to the titular outsider played by Hashizo Okawa. Fortunately I'd already seen several Jirocho films before I came to this one, though most western viewers would lack the background to understand all the Jirocho and Ishimatsu stuff that's crucial to the plot.

The movie devotes its first act to an extended comedy routine that doesn't really fit with the story that follows, but it is really entertaining. Our hero is Masa, a drifter who's just rolled into the harbor town of Shimizu, home of the chivalrous yakuza boss Jirocho. Masa breaks into the home of Rokusuke, a dim-witted underling of Jirocho, and helps himself to the dinner prepared and sitting on the table. When Roku and his wife Osuki come home and confront the Goldilocks intruder, Masa pretends that he's Roku's old buddy. Roku is so addle-brained that he figures Masa must be telling the truth, even though Osuki can see Masa's a lying freeloader. In his slick-talking to convince Roku to disregard Osuki and follow the example of Nikichi, a hero famous for divorced his wife for the sake of his yakuza honor. The tragic tale of Nikichi's marriage is told in a great many Jirocho films, including Jirocho Fuji and A Chivalrous Spirit.

Roku gets his new "old friend" Masa employment at Jirocho's home, but they're only domestic servants, not full-fledged members of the yakuza crew like Masa fancies himself being. Their coworker Kuma, played by the great comic actor Shunji Sakai, has a horrible stammer that disappears when he sings instead of speaking, a la Mel Tellis. Masa starts flirting with Oyuki, the cute young sister-in-law of Jirocho. In his efforts to impress her, Masa boasts that he's not a commoner but the son of Yasube Horibei, a famed member of the 47 loyal ronin portrayed by Shintaro Katsu in Kazuo Mori's Samurai Vendetta.

When we first see Jirocho (here played by the venerable Denjiro Okochi), he's getting the bad news that his renowned henchman Ishimatsu has been killed. Ishimatsu is a major character in most Jirocho films, and this is the only one I know of where he dies offscreen before ever appearing. Jirocho and his men go off to take their revenge against the Miyakodori gang, which also takes place offscreen. Kakutaro, one of Jirocho's men who was planning to retire from yakuza life, ends up dying in the fight. His widow Osode denounces Jirocho.

Masa comes up with an idea to show Osode and everyone why the Shimizu gang had no choice but to fight for vengeance: they'll put on a play about the death of Ishimatsu. Masa appoints himself to play the leading role, and when the others question whether he's tough enough to be worthy, he picks a fight with a passing samurai. It turns out that the samurai is Masa's friend, and Masa is in fact a samurai working undercover to infiltrate Jirocho's gang. With this revelation, the opening of the movie doesn't really make sense, with Masa playing the sushi-thieving fool when no one is around to see his act. Oh well, it was funny anyway. As an agent of the Emperor, Masa is charged with determining Jirocho's loyalties in the brewing conflict between the Emperor and the Shogunate. Masa's plan is to see how Jirocho responds to the political sentiments in his Ishimatsu play. If he's siding with the Shogunate, Masa is to kill him.

So the play's the thing wherein he'll catch the conscience of a yakuza boss. It seems like an awfully convoluted plan when Masa could just ask around what Jirocho thinks about the Emperor, but it's a good excuse to see Hashizo Okawa going totally over the top as Ishimatsu in a kabuki-lite theater setting, and Shunji Sakai's Kuma serves as a great singing narrator. It's always nice to see the historical roots of chambara cinema being emulated within a 20th century chambara movie. Incidentally, Masa had nothing to worry about because it's common knowledge that the real-life Jirocho shrewdly remained loyal to the Emperor. As a result, his past crimes were pardoned after the Shogunate was overthrown and he ended up becoming more powerful than ever under the new regime.

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