Ishimatsu the One-Eyed Avenger (1960)
Directed by Tadashi Sawashima

Ishimatsu the One-Eyed Avenger
Hibari no Mori no Ishimatsu
Starring Hibari Misora (Ishimatsu), Tomisaburo Wakayama (Jirocho), Kotaro Satomi (Sanji), Chie Ueki (Princess Chie), Kinichi Hanabusa (Butamatsu), Denjiro Okochi (Tamiya), Shunji Sakai (The man from Kanda), Kunio Kaga, Sonosuke Sawamura, Koinosuke Ogami, Kusuo Abe

Toei Company, 83 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

In the legends of chivalrous yakuza boss Shimizu no Jirocho, his henchman Mori no Ishimatsu is famed as a one-eyed, wild, womanizing, hard-drinking, shit-kicking son of a bitch. He's best portrayed by a rugged tough guy like Shintaro Katsu rather than a pretty-boy leading man. So here we have Tadashi Sawashima's 1960 film with the mega-manly character being played by a pretty woman: the superstar singer/actress Hibari Misora. Imagine a remake of Stagecoach with Marilyn Monroe as The Ringo Kid. Or in more contemporary terms, Miley Cyrus as Dirty Harry Callahan. Complete with song and dance numbers between the action scenes and killing.

Okay, it's not really that crazy when you know some of the background. Hibari was famous for playing male roles, including samurai and tough guys. Japanese audiences were so crazy about her that they'd go see her in anything, regardless of her chosen lack of feminine glamor. I suppose a more accurate American counterpart would be a singing Ellen DeGeneres, if you know what I'm saying. This is definitely a Disney-style imagining of the Jirocho mythos, with the violence toned down and ample opportunities for the star to break into song with her gorgeous voice, even though she's a dude. It's safe to say this is the only movie in which Ishimatsu rides a giant turtle to an undersea Dragon Palace and performs a full-on musical set piece, far East of Broadway.

What grounds this weird little movie in some sense of internal logic is the clever framing sequence, in which we see Hibari among a group of women harvesting tea leaves in the fields at the foot of Mount Fuji. Jirocho movies often open with a scene of farmers merrily singing with a Fuji backdrop, so it makes complete sense to insert the musically oriented Hibari amongst their number as a singing tea picker named O-Kimi. When the women take a break, they beg O-Kimi to tell them a story like she always does. And that's when she spins a yarn about the young yakuza named Ishimatsu. In this way we can view the rest of the film as being Ishimatsu's story filtered through O-Kimi's sensibilities and refashioned to put herself in the place of the manly hero.

Her story explains how Ishimatsu became one of Jirocho's men after meddling in their affairs. When they are striking against Kogoro, a criminal who killed the parents of their sworn brother Seneimon, Ishimatsu inadvertently interferes on the wrong side and lets the murderer escape. Despite his goof (I have to struggle not to refer to this Ishimastsu as a "she"), Jirocho accepts Ishi into the family and Ishi vows to track down Kogoro. Ably taking on the role of Jirocho, certified bad-ass Tomisaburo Wakayama lends a needed note of gravitas to the frothy proceedings. Wakayama actually co-starred in loads of Hibari Misora movies in the years before he became Itto Ogami.

Ishimatsu fulfills his promise to make amends by finding Kogoro hiding out with the evil boss Stuttering Yasu, but in the process his foolhardy actions upset Jirocho. As punishment, the boss sends Ishi on an errand to deliver a sword to the Konpira Shrine. This duty has special significance that I'll get back to in a moment. On the road, Ishi ends up protecting a blind young princess and tangles with a pickpocket named Sanji. Hibari's frequent leading man and singing partner Kotaro Satomi plays Sanji, teaming up with the star for several musical interludes including the bizarre Enchantment Under the Sea sequence.

Of particular note for me is one other scene on board a ship in which Ishimatsu overhears a man from Kanda (brilliantly played by comic actor Shunji Sakai) praising Jirocho and his men. Without disclosing his identity, Ishi plies the red-nosed gentleman with sushi and asks him to name which of Jirocho's men is the strongest, fishing for a compliment. The man from Kanda names Omasa as the strongest, then Komasa, then Seniemon, and on through the ranks. Ishi's ego is crushed until the man finally remembers that Ishimatsu is in fact the strongest of them all. What's noteworthy is that this precise scenario plays out in several different Jirocho films with the rhythm and pattern of an old familoar Abbott and Costello routine. It's always on a boat, the man always repeats that he's an Edo native from Kanda, he always has a red nose and eats Ishi's sushi. It's as if the audience must already know this scene by heart. The comedic performance here is excellent, with just one flaw: the punch line is missing! The man is supposed to say that Ishi is the strongest, but he's also a moronic simpleton. Ah well, I guess that was part of making this a kinder, gentler Ishimatsu movie.

Which brings me back to the errand of Jirocho's sword. It's part of the legend that Ishimatsu never returns from his mission to deliver the sword to the Konpira Shrine, because he gets ambushed and murdered afterward. The movie ends with O-Kimi finishing up her tale at Konpira, then telling the other girls that's enough for today. Surely the audience got the joke that it's like concluding a whitewashed bedtime story about Napoleon Bonaparte with his arrival at Waterloo. And then they all lived happily ever after.

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