Samurai Vagabonds (1960)
Directed by Tadashi Sawashima

Samurai Vagabonds
Oedo Hyobanji Binan no Kaoyaku
Starring Kinnosuke Nakamura (Munenaga/Yaji), Katsuo Nakamura (Yoshinao/Kita), Hibari Misora (Okimi), Satomi Oka (Oyae), Denjiro Okochi (Hachibei), Minoru Chiaki (Gonbei of Kii), Haruo Tanaka (Gonbei of Owari), Keiko Yukishiro (Agemaki), Kenji Fujita (Taima Ando), Kasho Nakamura (Zensho Kuki), Kusho Abe (Tengo Kuroiwa), Kyoji Sugi (Hyobo Kagami), Atsushi Watanabe (Hotta), Kinichi Hanabusa (Sankichi)

Toei Company, 79 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi (TV broadcast quality)

Samurai Vagabonds tells the story of how the eighth shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate came to power in the year 1716. Well, sort of. I'm no authority on these matters, but I'm pretty sure the actual historical events bore virtually no resemblance to the narrative of this movie, which is really a screwball comedy instead of a docudrama. Those who know the history and cultural context might be able to discern some particular satirical or political message in depicting the Tokugawa leadership in this fanciful way. All I can say is that it makes for an entertaining flick.

The movie opens after Shogun Ietsugu Tokugawa has died without an heir. Two young men from different Tokugawa-affiliated clans stand as the leading candidates for succession: Young Lord Munenaga of the Owari clan and Young Lord Yoshinao of the Kii clan (played by real-life brothers Kinnosuke Nakamura and Katsuo Nakamura). In your typical jidai-geki scenario, two such characters would be cutthroat rivals out to eliminate each other in a bloody struggle for supreme power. But here, Munenaga and Yoshinao are best buddies, and each of them wants the other to become shogun instead of himself.

It seems the two young lords have a penchant for escaping from their ruling class confines and going "vagabonding" in disguise as commoners. Although their vassals have taken measures to keep them separated and stamp out their hellraising boondoggles, the pressures of the shogun vacancy lead Munenaga and Yoshinao to run away from their responsibilities once again. Under their civilian aliases of Yaji and Kita, the young lords end up working for a newspaper edited by a young woman named Okimi (played by Hibari Misora). I don't know how accurate this is as a depiction of the press in 18th century Japan, but we've already established that this isn't a movie for historical nitpicking. The ironic twist is that Editor Okimi has fallen in love with Munenaga after an incident in which the young lord gave an command for her life to be spared from inside his palanquin. Since she doesn't know what Munenaga looks like, she has no clue that the young lord is now her employee.

The absence of Munenaga and Yoshinao leads to political turmoil aplenty. While the Owari and Kii factions make up cover stories about the young lords being ill, corrupt vassals from a third clan take steps to have their young lord installed as shogun instead. Munenaga and Yoshinao each have a fretful servant named Gonbei, and "the two Gonbeis" team up to go in search of their lords' whereabouts. Portrayed by comedic character actors Minoru Chiaki and Haruo Tanaka, the Gonbeis make a scene-stealing pair.

The frenetic energy of the first half of Samurai Vagabonds makes it the better segment, with the fairytale rhythms and symmetry in dialogue and characters (such as the two Gonbeis) in the setup of Munenaga and Yoshinao's situations. The initial getaway sequence and meetup with Okimi are outrageously hilarious. The movie loses some of its magic as it shifts into a more relaxed gear, buoyed by the novelty of Yaji and Kita using the power of the press to fight their enemies. The pen is mightier than the sword, indeed. The conceit of nobility in disguise as commoners is a familiar Tadashi Sawashima trademark, and the director gets in another of his pet themes when Munenaga and Yoshinao take part in a kabuki performance as a plot device. And of course Hibari Misora gets to sing a number or two.

In the end, only one of our two young lords can assume the title of shogun, and one of them does. Yet even this foregone conclusion is given a surprise dramatic twist. Sure, Samurai Vagabonds is about as historically valid as a buddy comedy about the incognito exploits of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, but it's lots of fun to watch.

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