A Chivalrous Spirit (1958)
Directed by Sadatsugu Matsuda

A Chivalrous Spirit
Ninkyo Tokaido
Starring Cheizo Kataoka (Jirocho), Kinnosuke Nakamura (Onikichi), Hashizo Okawa (Seneimon), Utaemon Ichikawa (Nikichi), Ryutaro Otomo (Omasa), Denjiro Okochi (Owada), Chiyonosuke Azuma (Hangoro), Isao Yamagata (Kadoi), Kogiku Hanayagi (Oshima), Yumiko Hasegawa (Okiku), Shinobu Chihara (Otake), Eitaro Shindo (Tanba),

Toei Company, 105 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi, Samurai DVD (TV broadcast quality)

The second chapter of Sadatsugu Matsuda's unofficial Shimizu no Jirocho trilogy is the best and most dramatically satisfying. Cheizo Kataoka reprises his incomparable personification of the legendary yakuza boss Jirocho, while the rest of the supporting cast have shifted around to new roles. Kinnosuke Nakamura and Hashizo Okawa now play different members of Jirocho's 28 henchmen than they did last time; Ryutaro Otomo is now Jirocho's lieutenant Omasa; and Utaemon Ichikawa plays their friend Nikichi.

The story gets a bit tricky to follow with a huge number of characters to keep track of, but once you sort out the maze of allegiances, grudges and betrayals, it boils down to a manhunt for three fugitives on the run. The three killers, led by Kanzawa Kogoro, are sought for murdering the uncle of Jirocho's henchman Seneimon. Jirocho learns that the killers work for Boss Yasugoro, which leads to the classic scene of Jirocho interrupting Yasugoro's game of go (also depicted in the opening of Kazuo Mori's Jirocho Fuji). Yasugoro is typically portrayed as a stuttering, cowardly buffoon, but here he's more of a legitimately threatening villain without the exaggerated speech impediment.

After this meeting goes badly, Jirocho sends his henchman Onikichi to deliver a message to Yasugoro. This sets up one of the funniest and most memorable scenarios from Jirocho lore: Onikichi carrying his own coffin on messenger duty, on the assumption that he probably won't return from the errand alive. This version is different because Onikichi isn't delivering an outright challenge or threat -- he's only on a sort of courtesy call to notify Yasugoro that Jirocho intends to search for the fugitives in his territory. Maybe that's why Yasugoro agrees to let Onikichi go so easily; in other tellings, it's done as an act of honor because Jirocho has previously let his adversary's messenger go home unharmed.

The emotional core of the movie comes when an informant tells Jirocho the whereabouts of Oshima, formerly the wife of the man the fugitives killed. Oshima has been staying with the suspect Kogoro, so everyone believes she must have conspired in the murder of her husband. Jirocho dispatches Seneimon and two other men to question Oshima on where the fugitives are and then kill her. They come to learn that Oshima is innocent, having been coerced into living with Kogoro by threats against her young son's life. When we see Oshima with her son mourning her dead husband, it's easy get confused because the same woman and child actors played the wife and son of another slain man in Port of Honor. The first time I saw A Chivalrous Spirit I strained my brain trying to sort out the continuity between the two movies, but it's just a casting coincidence with totally different characters. That aside, the plight of Oshima and how Jirocho's men deal with it is deeply affecting and far more dramatically sophisticated than anything in the preceding film.

The narrative intensity continues with the inclusion of two familiar scenarios from Jirocho lore. Omasa leads a group of Jirocho's men in pursuing the three fugitives and cornering them in a farmer's hut, which gets burned down in the siege. Jirocho is enraged at his men when he hears they have destroyed the property of innocent civilians. In this version the fire is actually started by a rival boss's men, but the incident serves no less to illustrate Jirocho's moral commitment to respect and protect "straight" citizens as a true chivalrous yakuza.

Consequently, the men go to stay with their friend Nikichi until Jirocho cools off. Nikichi gets word that his brother-in-law Annotoku has taken criminal actions and is conspiring against Jirocho. Thus he chooses to give a letter of divorce to his loving wife Okiku in order to cut his ties with Annotoku. (This tale also appears in Jirocho Fuji, with Raizo Ichikawa topping Utaemon Ichikawa's performance as Nikichi.) Like Oshima, Okiku is a virtuous woman whose happiness is crushed by all the gangster business. When Okiku goes to inform Jirocho of the latest developments, the boss's lamentations sum up the moral dilemmas that plague him: "For greed and pride, innocent people are hurt. The world of a gambler is foolish and dirty. I am one of them, and should change."

The climatic battle brings a tragic resolution to these issues of duty and morality. A Chivalrous Spirit is an uncommonly complex and emotional chambara drama that can stand beside the more celebrated Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji and Killing in Yoshiwara on the list of Chiezo Kataoka's finest performances.

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