Port of Honor (1957)
Directed by Sadatsugu Matsuda

Port of Honor
Ninkyo Shimizu Minato
Starring Cheizo Kataoka (Jirocho), Kinnosuke Nakamura (Ishimatsu), Hashizo Okawa (Sangoro), Utaemon Ichikawa (Boss Omaeda), Ryunosuke Tsukigata (Kurokoma), Ryutaro Otomo (Chobei), Chiyonosuke Azuma (Shichigoro), Eijiro Tono (Kansuke), Isao Yamagata (Miyakodori), Eitaro Shindo (Kyuroku), Sentaro Fushimi, Yumiko Hasegawa (Osen), Shinobu Chihara (Otami)

Toei Company, 103 minutes
Color, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi, Samurai DVD

Port of Honor is the first part of a loose trilogy of films directed by Sadatsugu Matusda based on the Shimizu no Jirocho legend. Matusda's storytelling is somewhat pedestrian compared to other adaptations, but the saving grace of this series is clearly the leading man. Cheizo Kataoka is the definitive Jirocho of all the portrayals I've thus far seen. With his wise, avuncular calm that boils over into frightening rage only when he's provoked past the reasonable limit, Kataoka was born to play this role. These three films feature roughly the same supporting cast of such Toei stalwarts as Utaemon Ichikawa, Kinnosuke Nakamura, Hashizo Okawa and Ryutaro Otomo. But other than Kataoka in the starring role, all the other actors portray different characters in each successive film, like a ninkyo-eiga repertory troupe.

The series hits all the patented ingredients of the Jirocho saga, opening with the familiar scenario of Jirocho's men seeking custody of a fugitive who's hiding out with another boss. A criminal has killed an associate of Jirocho's and taken refuge under an alias with Boss Saruya Kansuke. Though Kansuke's first inclination is to cooperate, his scheming nephew Kurokoma convinces him that Jirocho is up to no good. This precipitates a deadly confrontation between Jirocho and Kansuke, sparking turmoil that Kurokoma sees as an opportunity to expand his gambling territory.

Subsequently Kurokoma and Jirocho trade retaliatory strikes and both sides rally their troops for a major throwdown. Just before the battle is set to begin, Boss Omaeda (Utaemon Ichikawa) intervenes and appeals to Jirocho to find another solution besides violence and killing. "I want you to pave a path," Omaeda says. "A duel without swords is the greatest."

Jirocho finds himself enlightened by this "moment of zen" and resolves to turn over a new leaf. The revenge match against Kurokoma is called off, and the kinder, gentler Jirocho directs his men to help farmers till their fields and submit to having their "warped characters" corrected by a temple priest. Gossip quickly spreads that Boss Jirocho has lost his marbles, and Kurokoma and others plot to exploit their rival's newfound pacifism to their advantage.

It's all a good rip-roaring yarn, but many of the subplots and motivations in the script come across half-baked. For instance, there's a big deal made about Jirocho's wife Ocho being near death from a sudden illness, then boom, she's miraculously better. Jirocho's most distinctive henchman, the one-eyed Ishimatsu, spends the first act mooning over a girl back home he intends to marry, and after their romance is thwarted, the plot thread is dropped without further ado.

Ishimatsu gets a bigger part to play later in the story, when Jirocho tasks him with delivering his sword to the Konpira Shrine as a token of his spiritual atonement. Ishimatsu meets up with Kurokoma's associate Miyakodori while on this errand, and those familiar with the Jirocho mythos will know the subsequent ambush does not end well for poor Ishi. His fate leads Jirocho to reluctantly take up arms once again and strike a blow for justice against Kurokoma.

All in all, Port of Honor is a fine B-movie presentation of the Jirocho story, elevated to a certain greatness by the presence of Cheizo Kataoka. This man simply is Jirocho, and it would be a pleasure to watch him play the boss of the Tokaido Road even with the crappiest of screenplays. The rest of the cast comes across a bit underwhelming for their talent level. Kinnosuke Nakamura does an admirable job as Ishimatsu, but he's really too youthful and handsome under the low-budget eye scar markup. Ishimatsu should be more of a slovenly ogre, which is why Shintaro Katsu was so awesome in Jirocho Fuji.

The Jidai-Geki Knights