Goyokin is the best samurai film I’ve seen yet that was made more or less exclusively for Japan and not intended for a foreign audience. I’ve written before how the DVD format and a general broadening of awareness about samurai films and Japanese culture have made it possible for many of even their more esoteric products to be sold domestically and reach a receptive audience. Even five years ago I’m not sure anyone would have dared to market a box set of all the Battles Without Honor and Humanity films, but we have that now, along with a horde of other good-to-great-to-outstanding movies that might never have been seen in English-speaking territories: Portrait of Hell, Samurai Rebellion, Swords of Vengeance.
Now add Goyokin to that list, a title which even many samurai movie buffs haven’t known about until recently. The title refers to the gold of the shogunate, mined and transported with great difficulty from one of the outlying islands in the Japanese archipelago; to interfere with the gold transport is punishable by death. The film itself opens with a young woman returning to her home village — at the landing point for the gold convoy — to find that everyone there has been massacred. Rather than tell us about the massacre directly from there, the movie chooses instead to back into the rest of the story by flashing ahead a few years and focusing on Magobei (Tatsuya Nakadai), one of the men who was present at the massacre.
Ex-samurai Magobei is haunted by having participated in a village massacre,
the better to enrich his retainer by looting the Shogunate's gold.
As with the incident itself, everything we learn about Magobei comes gradually. He has disassociated himself from his clan out of guilt over the massacre, and now only wants to be left alone. Unfortunately, his clan refuses to let him rest in peace, and his former clan lord, Rokugo (Tetsuro Tanba) has sent men to have him assassinated. They fail to kill him, but in the process we learn what Magobei knows about the true motives for the slaughter. Rokugo’s clan was going bankrupt, and he stole shipments of the royal gold to pay his debts. The villagers were sacrificial victims of his greed; their disappearances attributed to a local legend about spirits stealing them away to keep the curious from prying more deeply.
Magobei is horrified by what he learns, and learns that Rokugo wants him dead because he’s planning to do the exact same thing again — steal the gold, blame it on the locals, and kill anyone who gets in his way. Rokugo is in a way not surprised that his death squad was dispatched; Magobei was always an excellent swordsman, and he would rather have him back on his side than against him, if possible. Interestingly enough, the movie gives Rokugo enough screen time to be sympathetic — he is not simply doing this for himself (or so he says), but for the better of all the people who serve under him. On the other hand we have Magobei, once one of those people himself until he discovered what his master was doing in their name; doing the right thing has cost him his place in society and his marriage to the devoted and patient Shino (Yôko Tsukasa, of Samurai Rebellion).
A former villager-turned-gambler, Oriha, crosses Magobei's path, along with roustabout Samon —
the latter played by Kinnosuke Nakamura in a role that's wonderfully against type.
Several other characters enter the fray. We meet up once again with the woman from the opening scenes, Oriha (Ruriko Asaoka), now a gambler and cardsharp, trying to put the past behind her in her own way. She and Magobei find a common connection through the same incident — he one of the instigators, she one of the victims — but the movie knows better than to assume that love can conquer all. There is also Samon (Kinnosuke Nakamura), a rakehell and roustabout who becomes instrumental in helping Magobei prevent the past from repeating itself. The less said about him in detail, the better, since his identity is one of the movie’s key secrets and becomes instrumental in allowing everything to move towards the climactic clash between Magobei and Rokugo.
Goyokin’s reputation was incentive enough for me to see it, but the cast only made it all the more crucial. Nakadai uses his best assets — his frightened eyes and heavy-boned face — to save us a certain amount of explanation. As in Portrait of Hell, we don’t need to be told he’s a haunted man; we can see it for ourselves. Kinnosuke Nakamura is another favorite of mine — he is often cast in sneering villain’s roles, as in Shogun’s Samurai — but here he’s portraying a man who cultivates a good-for-nothing appearance for very specific reasons, and it works. His other outing as a hero-of-a-sort that I’ve seen was in Kinji Fukasaku’s Chushingura retelling Swords of Vengeance, and there was an edge of arrogance in his supposedly good character that was in itself a kind of commentary on the movie’s themes.
Goyokin's compelling story and fine acting are also supported by
some of the best camerawork and photography of any samurai film.
Director Hideo Gosha helmed some twenty-odd movies, with most of his output largely undiscovered outside of Japan. He’s most known here for his dark and biting samurai tales — Three Outlaw Samurai, Sword of the Beast (which I particularly liked), one of the Tange Sanzen films, the lurid but fascinating Hunter in the Dark, Bandits Vs. Samurai Squadron, and quite a few others. All of them looked good, but Goyokin looks flat-out astonishing — it was the first Japanese production shot with the Panavision system, and every scene looks impressive in some way. Even the most trivial moments in the film are photographed with great luster. The best moments come at the end, where Magobei and Rokugo face off in the snow, followed by a long and soulful coda at the seaside. That last scene goes on at length, but is so beautifully framed and shot that it achieves a kind of hypnotic grandeur instead of overstaying its welcome.
It’s curious how even the best of today’s Japanese period stories don’t even come near the heights of a film like this. Samurai movies of the Sixties and Seventies took the glory of samurai life (and death) and deconstructed them in various ways — sometimes with black humor (Kill!), sometimes with life-affirming comedy (Red Lion) and sometimes with stark horror (Harakiri). It’s depressing to see how the Japanese studio system has beaten an almost total retreat from such protestant conceits and now mines the samurai era mainly for easy nostalgia and mindless escapism (like the lamentable Azumi). Watching any movie from this era is bracing, and Goyokin is good enough to leave you downright breathless.