Mighty Shosuke (1960)
Directed by Sadatsugu Matsuda

Mighty Shosuke
Shosuke Buyuden Aizu Bandaisan
Starring Ryutaro Otomo (Shosuke), Hibari Misora (Mitsu), Satomi Oka (Princess Nobu), Isao Yamagata (Mondo), Jun Tatara (Chubei), Minoru Chiaki (Lord Katamori), Kenji Susukida (Jinbei), Bokuzen Hidari (Tokan), Eijiro Yanagi

Toei Company, 91 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi
(TV broadcast quality)

One of Sadatsugu Matsuda's funniest movies, Mighty Shosuke is a hilarious farce in which Ryutaro Otomo gets to show off his comedic shops to the fullest. He stars as Shosuke Ohara, the ne'er-do-well heir of a formerly powerful samurai family. Though Shosuke is a brave and skillful swordsman, he suffers from chronic laziness and lack of ambition. His aimless lifestyle of morning nap, morning sake and morning bath has bankrupted his family fortune, reducing his household staff to his aged vassal Jinbei and his granddaughter Mitsu (played by Hibari Misora in a great supporting role). Shosuke also has a couple of shiftless ronin buddies Mondo and Chubei who want to be his servants, but they're basically freeloaders who seem to have poorly chosen their benefactor.

Shosuke's carefree life gets turned upside-down when his clan's lord Katamori calls him to serve in the castle. His mission is to be a sword instructor to Princess Nobu, a strong-willed tomboy and martial arts practitioner who refuses to marry any suitor who can't beat her in a fight. Her father hopes that the mighty Shosuke will teach her humility and get her to behave like a proper princess, but another personality flaw of Shosuke's gets in the way. He is intensely fearful of women and runs in terror at the sight of Nobu. So it looks like Shosuke's golden opportunity to redeem himself is self-sabotaged from the start, but clever twists and turns unfurl with with side-splitting results.

The script is finely crafted with amusing flourishes throughout, with running jokes about thieves stealing eggs, priceless heirlooms getting pawned, and people placing a sandal on Shosuke's forehead every time he faints (apparently a folk remedy). There's a funny bit about Shosuke needing to shave after Princess Nobu voices her scorn for beards making men's heads look upside-down... and then later Lord Katamori disguises himself wearing a shaggy fake beard.

Among all these laughs, there are two comedy set pieces that really stand out. After Shosuke's failure with Nobu, the Lord dispatches him on a different mission much more to Shosuke's liking: he's sent to check out mysterious "monsters" that have been sighted at a clan mansion. Sure enough, Shosuke runs across giant-headed, googly-eyed creatures that must have come from the depths of the Toei monster movie wardrobe, looking like nothing you typically see in chambara. Not even batting an eye, Shosuke laughs at the monsters and forcefully orders the monsters to fetch him water from a well and do menial chores, and the baffled monsters obediently comply. They turn out to be disguised henchmen in a sort of Scooby-Doo conspiracy, but the real payoff here is when Nobu shows up and Shosuke assumes she's another monster, this one fiendishly disguised as the thing he fears most. So he bosses the princess around and makes her grill fish for him. And you just have to see it to know how hysterical the scene is. Ah, that's the good old-fashioned way to teach an uppity woman how to be a lady: yell at her and make her fix you some dinner!

The other sequence that's even funnier comes when Shosuke's underlings Mondo and Chubei are running a scam to sell a cannon having phenomenal range and power despite its light, compact form. They arrange a demonstration for a greedy merchant and clan military officials, but in fact their cannon is a sham. With synchronized aid from a gang of kids lighting explosives at the target sites, Mondo and Chubei conjure the illusion that the cannon is a certified wonder... until a passing dumpling vendor distracts their youthful confederates. Oh my gosh, we're talking Marx Brothers meets Three Stooges epic-level comedy here, absolutely gut-busting!

Ryutaro Otomo shines as Shosuke, being maybe the one rugged chambara leading man able to convincingly play the character's paralyzing fear of women. Otomo often had roles where he was dismissive or awkward around his beautiful co-stars, which has given me the fanciful impression that maybe, just maybe, he might have been the Rock Hudson of the Toei studio. I have no evidence one way or the other about the actor's personal life, and I'd love to hear any inside gossip from Japanese film historians out there who might set me wrong. It's interesting to note that only woman Shosuke can stand is his tomboyish servant Mitsu, because he's never thought of her as a woman... and of course the gender-bending Hibari's sexual orientation is more a matter of public record.

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