#17 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
This is one of those films that has a really interesting historical footnote. It was in the middle of filming that Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Imperial Japan to the US Forces in the Pacific, also meaning that this was being filmed when two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. You can’t tell from the film itself, it was a quickly written adaptation of existing kabuki material, filmed mostly on a single set and lasts only an hour. There are no sudden subtexts of the apocalypse or even defeat. It was made by a professional group, led by Akira Kurosawa, and they followed through on their script, with the film eventually getting suppressed by the ascending Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers after the war for thematic reasons.
With that historical notation out of the way, how’s the movie? Well, it’s pretty good. It’s easily Kurosawa’s shortest film, and it actually kind of feels like the third act of one of his later, longer ones. It is the tale of Lord Yoshitsune (Tadayoshi Nishina) having just won a war with an enemy but forced into hiding because the Shogun, his brother, has decided that Yoshitsune must be destroyed. This group of seven men, led by the lord’s chief bodyguard Benkei (Denjiro Okochi), are disguised as monks in order to cross the provincial borders until they can get to the land of a friend. They have employed a local porter (Ken’ichi Enomoto) to act as their guide who steadily learns their identities and swears to protect them to show his worth (this is the kind of feudal, dying for a lord, idea that the US forces were probably not all that excited about a defeated Japanese people taking in during the movies).
The only two characters who get any real definition here are Benkei and the porter. The porter acts first as the audience’s guide into this new feudal world, and then he becomes a purely comic character, the camera often cutting to him to witness him give strained expressions to events going on in scenes. This ends up going a bit too far as some key moments later, though. Benkei, on the other hand, is the ideal of Bushido, completely dedicated to his lord and incredibly capable. When the porter brings news that the border they’re approaching is looking for a group of seven monks Benkei is the only one of the six men guarding their lord to look at the situation in a clear-headed manner. They will continue on, Yoshitsune will disguise himself as a porter, and they will develop a backstory of wandering the northern provinces soliciting funds for the rebuilding of an important temple.
The central bulk of the film is dedicated to the meeting with Togashi (Susumu Fujita) and his lieutenant Kamei (Masayuki Mori) at the border where Benkei needs to convince the province’s officers of their story. It’s a wonderfully tense twenty minutes or so where Benkei has to sell the group’s status as monks, getting Togashi to disobey his orders which state that no monks should pass when, Benkei asserts, they obviously mean no fake monks should pass. His proof includes their ability to accept their arrest with calm acknowledgment and the impassioned reading of a prospectus for the temple project that Benkei makes up on the spot. A sword is never drawn, but this is still some really tense stuff.
Benkei, though, must do the unthinkable when Kamei, as the men are leaving, decides that the disguised Yoshitsune looks like Yoshitsune. Benkei, knowing that they are trapped if anyone gets a good look at his lord’s face, beats his lord with a stick while declaiming him for invented shortcomings as a porter. Witnessing this, Togashi knows that the porter cannot be Yoshitsune because no servant would ever treat his master like that. It’s an interesting example of a man needing to break Bushido in order to save his own master, and Yoshitsune takes the beating in the exact spirit in which it was given, forgiving Benkei.
The film ends with a curious little scene where Togashi sends some men with some sake for the monks to enjoy, and Benkei proceeds to get really drunk before the seven men disappear in the night, leaving the lowly, real porter alone to look out for them in the countryside the next morning.
At only 58-minutes long, this really feels like it could have been the second half of a film, or even the final third of a long film. Expand Togashi’s character in the beginning, show the fleeing from Kyoto, and maybe give us a chase at the end when Togashi learns the true identities of the monks, being forced to go after men he respects despite his orders from his own lord. As it is, though, it’s solidly good little film with a great twenty minutes that are just pure tension. Everything around those minutes are fine, but those twenty minutes are a doozy.