The Samurai Pirate (a.k.a. The Great Bandit, 1963)
Directed by Senkichi Taniguchi

The Samurai Pirate
Dai tozoku
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Sukeza), Tadao Nakamaru (The Chancellor), Mie Hama (Princess Yaya), Kumi Mizuno (Miwa), Ichiro Arishima (Sennin), Eisei Amamoto (Granny the Witch), Mitsuko Kusabue (Sobe), Makoto Sato (The Black Pirate), Junichiro Mukai (Slim), Takashi Shimura (King Raksha), Jun Tazaki
Screenplay by Takeshi Kimura and Shinichi Sekizawa

Toho Company, 96 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

When I first started getting into obscure jidai-geki films, I learned about an old Toshiro Mifune movie called The Samurai Pirate that was said to be a piece of trash. Much later I got the opportunity to buy it and judge for myself how worthless it was. Boy, I'm glad I did. I can see how some viewers would find it cheesy, campy and juvenile, but I love every minute of it. This is no Seven Samurai, but it's pure entertainment for those willing to accept a little silliness. The movie's original title translates more precisely as The Great Bandit or The Great Thief, and The Samurai Pirate is nonsensical since the lead character is not a samurai (and not much of a pirate, either). But I say a silly movie deserves a silly name, so that's what I prefer to call it.

Mifune stars as Sukeza, a shipping merchant in the port city of Sakai who is falsely accused of being a pirate and sentenced to death. After escaping his execution with a bribe, Sukeza sets sail with his men and declares that since the world thinks he's a pirate, it might be fun to become one. He says he's tired of being confined to Japan and wants to explore the seas. But Sukeza's pirating career doesn't get very far, since a storm immediately wrecks his ship and his salvaged treasure chest gets nabbed by the much more accomplished Black Pirate.

When Sukeza washes up on the shore of a south Pacific island, you start to get the picture of what kind of movie The Samurai Pirate is. This is not your standard chambara or action-adventure. It's a fairy tale. Sukeza meets up with a crazy old wizard, a beautiful princess, a dastardly chancellor, a gorgeous but deadly female bandit, and an evil old witch played by a man in drag. The bedridden king is near death, and conspiracies abound concerning the succession of power. Will Princess Yiyi marry her Prince Charming who's due to arrive from China? Will the wicked chancellor succeed in his scheme to eliminate the prince and become the new king? Or will the interloper Sukeza manage to win the hand of the princess, after falling in love with her at first sight?

That's the kind of movie we're dealing with here. You can choose to be cynical and hate it, or you can go along for the ride. The story is simple but not simple-minded, delivered with a touch of sarcasm and irreverance to make this the jidai-geki counterpart to The Princess Bride. You've got to give director Senkichi Taniguchi an A for effort, because he throws everything imaginable into this story with vast inventiveness. It has all the low-budget, old-school special effects tricks you ever seen, including rear projection, stop motion, miniatures, forced perspective, bluescreen, it's all here – maybe not done very convincingly, but done with loads of relish and spirit. Plus we've got goofy '60s costumes, goofy '60s set design, and the requisite underling characters played by a midget and a seven-foot giant. The wackiness factor hits its zenith when Sukeza straps himself to a kite so he can get flown inside a barricaded castle.

My favorite member of the colorful supporting cast is Sennin, the old wizard. In an apparent reference to some Japanese folklore figure, Sennin is the descendent of a godlike entity who was cast down to earth as punishment for leering at a beautiful woman. So Sennin's Achilles heel is being immobilized whenever he spots the cleavage of nubile young ladies. As a wizard, he's pretty much fifth-rate, but he's clever with his few magic tricks like the ability to transform into a housefly. Sennin gets into a wizard battle with the Granny the Witch, which is actually quite visually impressive.

The Samurai Pirate is clearly not a movie for everyone, but I got so caught up in it the first time I watched it that I was on the edge of my seat in anticipation of the final outcome and cheering out loud. I would have expected Mifune to take on an oddball project like this in the mid-'70s, when his career was on the downswing and he was doing all kinds of TV shows and less prestigious work. But the amazing thing is that The Samurai Pirate was made in 1963 when Mifune was still in his prime, just after Sanjuro. The movie has been repackaged in an English-dubbed version in which Sukeza is referred to as "Sinbad," which initially struck me as a horrible travesty. But really, that idea makes perfect sense, because this would make a excellent movie for American kids to watch. Even with the moderate violence and the lecherous wizard, this is a movie I would have loved to pieces as a youngster. In fact, I do now.

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema