Jirocho Fuji (1959)
Directed by Kazuo Mori

Jirocho Fuji
Jirocho Fuji
Starring Kazuo Hasegawa (Jirocho), Shintaro Katsu (Ishimatsu), Raizo Ichikawa (Nikichi), Kojiro Hongo (Tsurukichi), Machiko Kyo (Okatsu), Ayako Wakao (Okiku), Fujiko Yamamoto (Oshin the Constrictor), Tamao Nakamura (Server girl at the inn), Eiji Funakoshi, Jun Negami, Osamu Takizawa

Daiei Studios, 104 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

Jirocho Fuji is the first half of Kazuo Mori's excellent retelling of the Shimizu no Jirocho legend. This movie was my introduction to Jirocho, and when I first saw it with no background I felt like the story was weird and disjointed. Serious drama butted up against goofy slapstick in an episodic string of events. Now that I've learned more about the mythology of the boss of the Tokaido Road and his 28 merry men, I've gained an appreciation of how the pieces of the puzzle fit together in a mosaic that would be very familiar to Japanese audiences.

In my admittedly limited experience, Cheizo Kataoka is Jirocho in the same way that Sean Connery is James Bond. Any other actor is going to be a pale imitation in the role. Nonetheless, Kazuo Hasegawa does a respectable job here, and Jirocho Fuji enjoys the veritable boon of Shintaro Katsu as the perfect Ishimatsu. Between his two Jirocho movies and The Blind Menace, Kazuo Mori certainly helped Katsu find his footing in sight-impaired characters before he struck it big as Zatoichi.

The movie opens classic shot of Jirocho and his men marching through the countryside with Mount Fuji in the background. It's almost an obligatory setting for the titles of any Jirocho film, usually with a beautiful blue sky and peasants working merrily in the fields as our chivalrous yakuza heroes stroll by.

In this case Jirocho is on his way to confront the craven boss Yasugoro over a matter of yakuza honor. When Jirocho asks politely speak with Yasugoro, "Stuttering Yasu" ignores the plea and refuses to look up from his game of go. In a famous incident, Jirocho overturns the goboard and demands to be heard. A lowlife named Kogoro has killed the father of Jirocho's man Masakawa, and is now hiding out with Yasu. Jirocho demands that the killer be turned over to them. Yasu reluctantly agrees to let Masakawa and Kogoro settle the matter in a one-on-one duel out behind the shrine. In the ensuing fight, Masakawa gets his revenge but inadvertently splatters blood on the holy shrine in the process. Since this is considered a grave offense, Jirocho and his men are forced to go on the run.

There follows an introduction to Ishimatsu, the one-eyed warrior who is the most colorful of Jirocho's loyal crew. He overhears a group of bumbling police officers on their way to arrest Jirocho. They describe the fearsome threats posed by Jirocho and his top men, but then laugh at the reputation of Ishimatsu the idiot. Ishi dispatches the foolish cops with a full-on Three Stooges head-bonking treatment, complete with wacky sound effects. The over-the-top nutty antics might fall flat with any typical chambara actor in the role, but Shintaro Katsu has the comedic chops to make his Ishimatsu work wonderfully.

It becomes Ishimatsu's duty to take Jirocho's wife Ocho into hiding and protect her from the law's pursuit. Ocho forbids Ishi from drinking on their road trip because of his tendency to get drunk and stupid. But he disregards her rules and ends up guzzling sake, passing out and getting all their traveling money stolen by a female con artist called Oshin the Constrictor. A shifty old acquaintance called Chobei the Little Raccoon offers to help Ishi and Ocho, but he ends up stealing Ishi's clothes.

Meanwhile, Jirocho and his men meet up with an innkeeper who turns out to be the father of one of their associates, Tsurukichi. They learn that Tsurukichi's fiancee Otae is set to be married against her will to the town chief. Jirocho and company rush off to intervene in the wedding, which is coincidentally just about to take place. On their way, they coincidentally cross paths with Ishi and Ocho. You'll notice their is a heck of a lot of coincidence, chance meetings and perfect timing in this story. That's a hallmark of the Jirocho mythos, and you just have to suspend your disbelief about unlikely events piling up on each other. Ishimatsu grabs his sword and goes running along in his underwear to join the wedding crashers. Speaking of coincidence, this scene is a spectacle that Shintaro Katsu would reenact 10 years later in Hideo Gosha's Tenchu when he runs off full-tilt in an undressed state to catch up with his friends in a swordfight.

Plot developments proceed in this manner, with Jirocho's gang striking out against Yasugoro's gang, and animosities escalating as Yasugoro's big boss Kurogoma gets involved against our heroes. Along the way, a number of oft-told Jirocho episodes are woven into the tale. One biggie comes when Jirocho's men burn down a peasant family's barn in the pursuit of their enemies. Jirocho is mortified, demonstrating his philosophy of protecting the innocent and always leaving common folk out of their gangster warfare. This is the moral code that makes them chivalrous yakuza, and Jirocho always feels anguish when the code is violated, whether deliberately or by accident.

A couple of big-name stars make splashy cameo appearances. At a meeting of the bosses, one of the major domos is appointing his granddaughter Okatsu as his successor. She's portrayed by Machiko Kyo, who was slumming to turn up in a chambara flick at this point in her illustrious career, and you can practically feel the pause for audience applause when she makes her big entrance. Okatsu gives a speech appealing for peace among the bosses, does a gratuitous little dance number, then vanishes without having contributed much to the movie.

The final act of Jirocho Fuji concerns the tragedy of Jirocho's friend Nikichi, played by the great Raizo Ichikawa. There's a nice comedy bit about Nikichi's servant gladly offering hospitality to Jirocho's men without realizing it's going to be all 28 of them. Then there's the somber tale of Nikichi learning that his brother-in-law has allied himself with some evil bosses. To save his yakuza honor, Nikichi makes the painful decision to divorce his beloved wife Okiku and cut his ties to her brother. Ichikawa absolutely nails the scene, elevating it above the kabuki soap opera seen in other versions (such as in A Chivalrous Spirit) and really making us feel the impossible heartache. Then Nikichi joins Jirocho's men for the decisive final battle at Mount Kojin.

Taken on its own, Jirocho Fuji is kind of an uneven patchwork and maybe not that great a movie. It wasn't until I saw my second Jirocho film (which was Hibari Misora's Ishimatsu the One-Eyed Avenger) that I began to see the larger mythology. Seeing the same scenes and tall tales being portrayed by different actors in different circumstances has made me fall in love with this legend and all its permutations. But this version and its sequel will always remain sentimental favorites.

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