A Spectacular Showdown (1959)
Directed by Yasushi Sasaki

A Spectacular Showdown
Ketto Suikoden Dotou no Taiketsu
Starring Utaemon Ichikawa (Boss Shigezo), Eitaro Shindo (Boss Sukegoro), Kinnosuke Nakamura (Masakichi), Hashizo Okawa (Iwamatsu), Chiyonosuke Azuma (Sakichi) Cheizo Kataoka (Chuji of Kunisada), Ryutaro Otomo (Miki Harate), Tomisaburo Wakayama (Seiriki), Kotaro Satomi (Asatoro), Ryunosuke Tsukigata (Nakayama), Hibari Misora (Yachigusa), Keiko Okawa (Mitsu), Yumiko Hasegawa (Shizu), Satomi Oka (Saki), Denjiro Okochi (Shinsuke), Kenji Susukida (Boss Higata), Isao Yamagata (Boss Omaeda), Shunji Sakai (Katsunbe), Kogiku Hanayagi (Toyo), Noboru Umezawa (Jirocho)

Toei Company, 115 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Samurai DVD

The most commonly used English title for this movie is A Spectacular Showdown, and "spectacular" is definitely the right word to describe the production. This is a big, epic story with a War and Peace-size cast populated by the level of jidai-geki all-stars typically seen only in a 47 Loyal Ronin epic. As a fan of vintage Toei movies, I find myself gasping for the first half hour at all the panning shots loaded with one familiar face after another, as if Yasushi Sasaki is deliberately showing them off. Freakin' everybody's in this one!

The story concerns the legendary rivalry between two feuding 18th century yakuza bosses, Boss Shigezo of the Sasagawa clan and Boss Sukegoro of the Iioka clan. Their historical conflict is notable for its portrayal in the original 1962 Zatoichi film, which appeared a few years after this one. One huge difference between the two versions is that A Spectacular Showdown presents Shigezo as a noble boss in the finest chivalrous yakuza tradition, played by Utaemon Ichikawa and Sukegoro is a purely despicable villain fittingly portrayed by classic bad-guy actor Eitaro Shindo. By contrast, The Tale of Zatoichi painted both boss as corrupt bastards, following the cynical style set by Yojimbo.

In this rendition, Sukegoro bribes a magistrate into granting him jutte-wielding authority as a lawman, which he attempts to exploit as a means to bring down his yakuza rivals on legally sanctioned grounds. First he goes after Boss Higata, who holds a neutral territory between Sukegoro and Shigezo, then launches various schemes against Shigezo directly. Shigezo does his best to keep the peace and prevent both innocent civilians and honorable samurai from getting caught up in their yakuza in-fighting, until the tensions inevitable boil over into the titular showdown.

The most affecting character in the movie is Masakichi, a good-hearted Sukegoro henchman played by Kinnosuke Nakamura. Masakichi is steadfastly loyal to his boss despite his misgivings about Sukegoro's conniving and cowardice. When the revered boss Chuji of Kunisada (Cheizo Kataoka in a Best Supporting Actor-worthy cameo) calls together a huge meeting of yakuza bosses with the aim of helping farmers protect their tidelands, Sukegoro refuses to attend their do-gooder party. Masakichi takes it upon himself to represent Sukegoro at the meeting, claiming his boss is ill, and scraping together his own money to pay the requisite tribute. His valor impresses Chuji and Shigezo, and ultimately Masakichi has to decide between his allegiance to his boss and his own morality.

The huge cast of talented stars offers a number of other interesting characters. There's Ryutaro Otomo as Miki Harate, the tuburcular ronin in the employ of Shigezo. Harate figured hugely in The Tale of Zatoichi as Ichi's tragic friend, but here he plays more of a bit part. A young Tomisaburo Wakayama makes one of his early screen appearances as Seiriki, a former sumo wrestler now working as a yakuza associate of Shigezo. Wakayama's charisma is notable, especially in an awesome scene where he steps into the sumo ring. And of course no Toei showcase production would be complete without Hibari Misora, who puts in a fine appearance as the high-ranking geisha Yachigusa and kicks off the movie with a full song and dance number. Even my favorite yakuza boss of them all, Shimizu no Jirocho, gets name-checked and apparently shows up in the background at Chuji's big boss meeting, according to the credits. A Spectacular Showdown is essential viewing for any diehard jidai-geki enthusiast and arguably Yasushi Sasaki's best film.

The Jidai-Geki Knights