Noble Tasuke (1958)
Directed by Tadashi Sawashima

Noble Tasuke
Edo no Meibutusu Otoko: Isshin Tasuke
Starring Kinnosuke Nakamura (Tasuke/Shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa), Ryunosuke Tsukigata (Lord Okubo), Hitomi Nakahara (Naka), Shunji Sakai (Kinai), Isao Yamagata (Lord Izu), Kunio Kaga (Shogunate official), Atsushi Watanabe (Fish market manager)

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

Kinnosuke Nakamura stars in this first installment in Tadashi Sawashima's series about Isshin Tasuke, a popular folklore character. The fictional fishmonger became a hero of the people, a sort of chivalrous peasant known as Isshin Tasuke, which means "noble Tasuke." A temple in modern Tokyo bears a grave for Tasuke, even though he never actually lived. Many film and TV adaptions of the Isshin Tasuke legend have been made dating back to the silent era, with Nakamura's version being one of the best known.

This movie introduces Tasuke coming to the defense of a young girl sentenced to death for stepping in the path of Shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa's royal procession. When Tasuke valiantly demands to be punished in the girl's place, the task of his execution falls to the Shogun's elderly vassal, Lord Okubo. The old man finds himself impressed with Tasuke's courage and takes him on as a servant instead of killing him. Incidentally, Tasuke is a dead ringer for the young Iemitsu, also played by Nakamura. You might expect that Lord Okubo spares Tasuke with a mind toward exploiting that Prince and the Pauper resemblance, a la Kurosawa's Kagemusha,. But oddly no one takes any notice of the doppelganger factor in this movie, and it only becomes a plot element in the later sequels.

A powerful bond forms between the odd couple of Tasuke and Lord Okubo. Tasuke calls his master "boss" instead of "my lord," using the vulgar term oyabun like a yakuza henchman. Okubo looks upon Tasuke almost like an adopted son adding some interest to his boring courtly life. As an old warrior who has loyally served the first three generations of the Tokugawa, Okubo tends to live in the past and continually recounts his exploits in battle to the point that everyone around him can recite along. Okubo has a proposenity to refer to any inconvenient situation as a "national crisis," which becomes a hilarious running gag.

Tasuke makes another acquaintance when a simple country girl named Naka comes to work as a maid at the Okubo estate. All the other servants make fun of her low-class dialect, and when Naka accidentally breaks a heirloom plate, Tasuke comes to the rescue by taking the blame. His chivalry captures the hearts of all the girls and they chase after him in droves, but Naka is the one who ultimately wins him over with her dogged pursuit.

After a couple years of serving Okubo, in part wishing to get away from all his female admirers, Tasuke announces that he wants to leave the mansion and make a difference in the world on his own. It's quite an outrageous move, considering that he was supposed to have been executed in the first place, and now that he has gained a secure living in the service of his benefactor, Tasuke wants to turn his back on it for something more. But Okubo never for a moment thinks of Tasuke as ungrateful or insolent, agreeing to help his servant in his new ambition to be a fishmonger. This sort of twisting of social hierarchies is an area of expertise for Tadashi Sawashima, who always produces great comedy out of the clash between high and low.

Tasuke uses Lord Okubo's clout to rent a tenement apartment from a reluctant landlord and to establish his clout in the fish market, all played with bombastic screwball humor. Later Okubo comes up with a plan to force the local lords buy rotten fish, and Tasuke finds a loophole when lower-ranking vassals like Okubo are prohibited from riding palanquins to the castle. The solution is for the vassals to be carried in wash basins. The same scenario also figures in Sadatsugu Matsuda's Knightly Advice, in which Ryunosuke Tsukigata reprises his role as Lord Okubo.

Noble Tasuke is lots of fun with its absurd but very likable characters. Tasuke and Okubo's odd couple adventures continued for several more films to come, picking up with the excellent A World in Danger.

The Jidai-Geki Knights