Warring Clans (1963)
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto

Warring Clans
Sengoku yaro
Starring Yuzo Kayama (Kichi), Makoto Sato (Tokichiro Kinoshita), Ichiro Nakaya (Harima), Tadao Nakamaru (Saburoza), Jun Tazaki (Munesuke), Yuriko Hoshi (Saghiri), Kumi Mizuno (Princess Taki), Keihichi Taki (Murakami Suigun), Eisei Amamoto (Jigoku), Hideo Sunazuka (Matsu), Tatsuyoshi Ehara (Natsu)
Screenplay by Kihachi Okamoto, Ken Sano and Shinichi Sekizawa
Music by Masaru Sato

Toho Company, 98 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

Kihachi Okamoto had been directing varied types of films for about five years before making his jidai-geki debut in Warring Clans. It's a very fun and entertaining adventure that ties in with a lot of historical figures from the Sengoku period, which helps to understand a lot of the story's subtle implications. But I didn't know all that background when I first saw the movie and I enjoyed it a lot anyway, because it brings the epic clash of warlords Shingen Takeda and Nobunaga Oda down to the human level.

Warring Clans is also more a ninja movie than a samurai movie, although it doesn't look or feel like your typical ninja movie. Our hero is a young ninja named Kittan Ochi, or Kichi, who has abandoned his service under Shingen because he disagrees with the warlord's leadership. Kichi has been roaming the countryside fending off attacks from various ninjas who want him dead, including a fierce one named Saburoza. Kichi duels Saburoza in the opening scene and leaves him for dead with a bloody gash across his face, though Saburoza later returns seeking revenge. Observing their confrontation was an amiable ronin named Harima who becomes Kichi's traveling companion.

Then they are met by a mysterious joker who claims he'll be the ruler of Japan someday. Harima recognizes him as Tokichiro Kinoshita, a famous general in Oda's army, though Kichi has no idea who he is. Moreover, Kinoshita will be known later in his life as Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who does in fact rule Japan. I had no idea of this when I first saw the movie, but of course the Japanese audience would have gotten the joke of seeing the young Toyotomi running around like a simple commoner.

Anyway, Kinoshita and Harima have fun with Kichi's naivete, telling him he's a great fighter but he needs to learn more about the world. Indeed, he behaves as if he's spend his life training in a sequestered ninja compound and doesn't know much about people or politics. Kichi says that he wants to become a great ruler too, and Kinoshita advises him and Harima to find a good sponsor for his advancement.

When an official-looking procession of travelers comes by, Kinoshita has to explain that they are professional couriers called bashaku who typically transport provisions like rice and salt. Kinoshita suggests that this bashaku group might make a suitable sponsor for Kichi and Harima, so they clownishly introduce themselves to the beautiful young woman Saghiri who leads them. Saghiri invites them to come along, giving each of them a nickname. Kichi becomes "Batta" (grasshopper) and the hirsute Harima becomes "Hari" (hedgehog).

At the bashaku base, Kinoshita meets with Saghiri's father Munesuke to ask him to transport a shipment of 300 muskets to Lord Oda. Bashaku normally only carry simple provisions, so Kinoshita says no one would ever suspect them of hauling guns. The dangers make Munesuke reluctant to agree, but Kinoshita finally gets the bashaku's acceptance, with Kinoshita's secret associate Roku planted amongst the bashaku men to rally their support.

Having learned who Kinoshita is, Kichi accompanies the scheming general on a trip where he's supposedly going to get the guns. In reality, Kinoshita is meeting with the pirate Murakami Suigun to hire him to carry the guns by sea. Here we begin to see what a master con artist Kinoshita is, bluffing and bullshitting at every turn with unflappable smoothness. His master plan is to arrange not one but two phony shipments as double decoys to trick all the bandits and ninjas out to hijack the weapons. The real muskets will be secretly carried by Kinoshita's partner Roku.

All this double-dealing and trickery can get difficult to keep track of, but it's really beside the point. Despite the overarching plotline about warlords and arms shipments, Warring Clans is essentially a comedy, full of great gags that really have to be seen rather than described. The movie has fantastic editing with a theme of ironic jump cuts between scenes. For example, Kichi and Harima mischievously try to get a glimpse of Saghiri bathing and she splashes water on them. Cut to Kinoshita firing a musket, and the noise of the splash blends into the bang. And there's a clever exchange recurring three times each with different characters, where one person says, "Why are you following me?" and the other replies, "Why are you walking in front of me?" Yeah, it doesn't sound so funny on paper, but on the screen it's hilarious.

In the end, an indignant Kichi asks Kinoshita to confront the cost in human suffering that his manipulation and decoys has resulted in, and Kinoshita says he doesn't care. He's happy he's got his guns, and if some "small insects" had to be sacrificed to get the job done, so be it. Kinoshita's example shows Kichi and Harima that a humble and simple left is best for them, since they're not willing to pay the price for attaining the highest levels of status power: the necessity to be a heartless asshole.

The Jidai-Geki Knights