In Man against Myth, philosopher Barrows Dunham explained that one of the problems with tyranny is that you have no choice but to be a tyrant. If you want all the goodies that go with being a conqueror, you have to actually do the conquering, and the damage done to you as a person is irreversible. “The gains hardly seem worth the degeneracy,” he wrote, and he could have been talking about anyone from Mussolini (who inspired a good deal of the essay in question) to the warlords of ancient Japan.
Samurai Banners asks almost exactly the same question: What is the point of trying to become a “great man”, whether a conqueror or a uniter, if the cost involved is so great to you that there’s not much left to be called great? It deals with a chapter out of Japan’s own feudal history, when a number of different warlords were battling each other fiercely to control all of Japan; the rhetoric each of them used for this was that by ruling Japan under one banner, they could have peace. Yes, and in fact they were able to have that under the Tokugawa from the 1600s on, but there’s no small irony in that they had to kill so many of themselves (and each other) to get there.
Masterless samurai Yamamoto puts himself in the service of warlord Takeda Shingen,
but over time the servant becomes the true master through their mutual ambitions.
The story does not start with a warlord per se, but with a currently-masterless samurai, Kansuke Yamamoto (Toshiro Mifune), looking for someone new to serve. He goes to the haughty, confident Takeda Shingen (Kinnosuke Nakamura), who finds a great deal to like about this highly disciplined and wise soldier. But there is something else going on, something not clear in the first few scenes but which becomes all the clearer as time goes on — namely, that Yamamoto is far more ambitious than he lets on, and that he has a knack for linking up with people whose ambitions match his, and using them. (This begs the question: if both of them want the same things, then is anyone really “using” anyone else?)
Yamamoto understands that warfare is simply diplomacy conducted by other means, and vice versa. At one point he elegantly explains how he deduced a rival warlord was planning to kill Shingen, even though we on the outside saw nothing amiss. Was he right? The movie does not tell us, but shows that Yamamoto is able to compel Shingen to do nearly anything — at the very least, to kill his rivals without blinking even after showing them mercy and drafting a peace agreement. If you want to be a conqueror, you have to act like one, and the difference between Shingen and his rivals is that his rivals are only slightly more hesitant than he.
One of the spoils of this assassination is the daughter of the dead man, Princess Yu. The first time Yamamoto sees her, she is preparing to commit suicide rather than suffer the disgrace of being made into her enemy’s concubine. Yamamoto talks to her as a human being rather than a prisoner, and compels her to live on so that her family’s own bloodline will continue to exist in some form. The logic sounds impeccable, but the real reasons should be plain. He loves her, so much so that he doesn’t mind being despised in return for being what he is. Shingen seems only to think of her as a spoil of war, and only gradually comes to realize how valuable she is as a person.
This is the real heart of the movie, the three-way play of ambition between Shingen, Yamamoto and Yu. Each of them want something, and the only way they can get the things they want is to have those desires expressed through another person. In Shingen’s case, he wants to unify Japan, and he wants to have Yamamoto help him do it no matter what the cost to them as individuals. Yamamoto, on the other hand, is forced to try and balance his growing ambitions against his feelings for Yu, who only wants stability for herself and her future family, and fighting wars hardly seems the best way to accomplish that.
The film's battle scenes, glorious as they are, take a backseat to far more interesting interpersonal drama.
Samurai Banners comes billed as a war movie or historical adventure, but there’s relatively few big battle scenes in it. Most of the action is emotional, which summons more genuine interest in me than any number of shots of soldiers on horseback charging each other. In fact, with a cast like this, not giving their characters freedom of speech would be a mortal sin — Mifune needs no introduction, but Kinnosuke Nakamura, who plays Shingen, is worth mentioning. He’s almost always chosen to play haughty or criminally ambitious types, so it’s hard not to see him as having ulterior motives in everything he does. What’s interesting is that most of the ulterior motives in the film go to Mifune’s character — and since even Mifune’s bad guys tend to wear their motives openly, it makes for a wonderful contrast.
I mentioned in my review of rōnin-gai that the vast majority of samurai mov ies were made for Japanese audiences, not international ones. The few that are released overseas are either designed to be more coherent to foreign audiences, or are edited to match. With DVD, a lot of that has changed; companies like AnimEigo, Adness and Media Blasters now release the original, uncut versions of many such movies (complete with cultural notes) to eager viewers. Samurai Banners (and rōnin-gai before it, and Gojoe) are perfect examples of movies that deserve, and are now getting, a wider audience thanks to this approach.