Good Rascals (1962)
Directed by Tadashi Sawashima

Good Rascals
Oedo Hyobanji Binan no Kaoyaku
Starring Hashizo Okawa (Ichi), Kiyoshi Atsumi (Ushi), Kotaro Satomi (Nao), Isao Yamagata (Soshun), Haruo Tanaka (Takeuchi), Ryunosuke Tsukigata (Lord Nakano), Shunji Sakai (Carnival huckster), Hiromi Hanazono, Hiroko Sakuramachi, Shingo Yamashiro, Nijiko Kiyokawa, Kenji Susukida

Toei Company, 90 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi (TV broadcast quality)

Good Rascals is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, whether in Japanese, English or whatever language. Forget about historical accuracy or artistic refinement. This is just pure entertainment. With its four comic leads, a convoluted farcical plot and even a song and dance interlude, this is very much the jidai-geki equivalent of a Marx Brothers comedy.

Standing in for Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo, we have four small-time con artists named Ichi, Ushi, Nao and Soshun. In the starring role of Ichi is Hashizo Okawa, a popular matinee idol with fine comedic skills. But the true master comedian in the cast is Kiyoshi Atsumi, who in a few years following this role would become forever known as Tora-san. Atsumi hardly ever appeared in jidai-geki films, and he totally brings down the house in this rare treat. You can easily imagine his crafty Ushi as a remote ancestor of Tora-san.

There are lots of knotty plot threads to follow in Good Rascals, but the main scenario is this: Nao gets word that his mother is coming to visit him in Edo. The problem, as he explains to his buddies, is that for years he's exaggerated his career successes in letters back home, telling Mom that he's a chief commissioner. Now she's going to have the shame of finding him as a penniless loser.

But Ichi has a plan. They'll put on a charade to let Nao's mother see him as a lord and they'll pretend to be his vassals. Ushi knows of a vacant mansion, the second home of his former employer Lord Nakano, which has sat empty since Nakano built a newer home. They go to check it out and find dozens of beggars living there as squatters. Ichi's gang enlists them to play the staff and servants of "Lord Nao." They get costumes and other necessities using money Soshun has just scored in a scam. In a comedy routine reminiscent of the Tange Sazen million ryo pot story, Soshun tricks a nobleman into paying a fortune for a "rare antique" that's actually just a worthless old piss pot. The name given to the precious artifact is genius: Night Rain.

So Ichi and the boys go about setting up their fake castle with a fake lord and his fake court. After observing the careful, deliberate ceremony of Japanese nobility in hundreds of samurai movies, it's freaking hilarious to me when a bunch of uncultivated commoners attempt to emulate it and get everything horribly wrong. They go through the countryside practicing the march of the lord's retinue, and instead of a solemn procession they're all kicking up their heels like a Mardi Gras krewe, complete with exuberant jazzy music. You've got Tora-san -- I mean, Ushi -- commanding the hapless peasant passersby to bow down before them, and they unquestioningly obey. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime dream!" Ushi gushes. I'm sure this spectacle must have been several magnitudes more hysterical to the original audience who fully recognized the subversion of their formal traditions.

Adding a further nutty topping to this already overflowing banana split of comedic deliciousness, the characterization of Nao's mother Mon is brilliantly done. We'd expect her to a sweet little old lady naive enough to fall for the boys' masquerade pageant. But no, it turns out she's a sharp, streetwise ball of fire somewhere between Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies and Terry Jones's Mother Mandy from The Life of Brian. When Ushi arrives to greet Mon in a clumsy attempt at supplicant formality as the humble vassal of Lord Nao, her instant response is, "What's he done now? Oh no, how much money does Nao owe you?" She's a tough old broad who's never believed Nao's lies about hitting the big time. When she first lays eyes on her son in full regalia at the mansion, she bursts out laughing. "You look like an actor in a bad play!"

And it goes on from there. Inevitably, Lord Nakano discovers the interlopers playing make-believe in his house, and what happens next is not at all the response one would expect from an offended lord in any other samurai movie, ever. But Good Rascals is something special. Even through all the laughs and farce, there's real heart to be found at its core. What a great premise, what a funny script, what delightful performances. This is a comedy treasure like no other.

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema