Originally issued in 1969 and now in re-release, Hideo Gosha's "Goyokin" is an impressive, if flawed, samurai western, with moments of striking beauty that accumulate to a kind of grandeur. Built with thematic complexity and emotional oomph, it's a rare film -- the western with a social conscience.
"Goyokin" was made during the heyday in Japan of the Italian director Sergio Leone, and it bears his influence, both in technique and mood. It is set on an island in early 19th-century Japan. Everything in the story is determined by a kamikakushi, a "hiding by the gods" or disappearance, of 30 poor fishermen that occurred three years earlier; the fishermen, you see, weren't hidden by the gods at all -- they were massacred by the Sunai clan, who stole the shipwrecked gold (the goyokin of the title) that the fishermen were holding for the shogunate.
The kamikakushi horrifies one of the clansmen, the samurai Magobei (Tatsuya Nakadai); he brings his burden of guilt to the mainland, where, in self-imposed exile, he debases himself in a carnival show featuring his "lightning swordplay." When a gang of Sunai come to kill him, he learns that his brother-in-law, Tatewaki (Tetsuro Tamba), now the leader of the clan, is planning another kamikakushi, betraying the promise he made Magobei upon his departure. So Magobei heads back to Sunai territory to try to stop the massacre and, in that way, to try to rewrite his own history, to help the victims whom he failed three years before.
Throughout, "Goyokin" is superbly acted. Nakadai has a gaunt face and the gaze of Yul Brynner, an intensity that holds the screen; Tamba has a nice, accountant's impassivity that never lurches into a caricature of smarminess. Yoko Tsukasa brings sweetness to the role of Magobei's wife, who, endlessly weaving kimonos, waits Penelope-like for his return. Ruriko Asaoka plays Oriha, the lone survivor of the kamikakushi, with a sexy cheekiness. And the chunkily engaging Kinnosuke Nakamura adds a dollop of good humor to his Han Solo role -- the samurai who will do anything for money, but turns out to be a hale fellow in a scrape after all.
Director Gosha adopts a number of Leone's tricks, particularly the use of the zoom; there is something identifiably Leonesque in the tempo of the suspense and the use of the landscape -- the snowy expanse, dotted with the silhouettes of hungry vultures and mottles of blood, has a remorseless majesty. That said, Gosha is no Leone. While the action sequences are fun in that samurai way -- the counterpoint of elaborately slow posturing with impossibly fast mayhem -- they never quite deliver. There's a slackness in the framing that Leone would never abide, a slackness that undermines the quick cutting of his action sequences; when you're cutting as quickly as Gosha does, the images have to be precisely defined, but Gosha's are often obscure. It's supposed to be chaos, but it just ends up a muddle.
The story is loosely constructed as well. The subplot involving Oriha is a thread that's never picked up, as is the subplot involving the mercenary samurai. And the essential mystery of "Goyokin" -- the kamikakushi -- is explained from the start, so much of the tension is lost.
The great virtue of "Goyokin" lies in the way it makes the case for all its characters. Magobei is an unlikely hero -- after his years "in the gutter," he rejects the samurai code, arguing that it simply feeds on the misery of the masses. But if he's undeniably the hero, he also seems like a silly idealist. Tatewaki justifies his massacres by arguing for the greater good of the clan -- they need the money to survive; on the other hand, Magobei is right about him -- he's a murderer. And in the end, history has passed both of them by. Both are victims: The only winners in "Goyokin" are the aggrandizing shogunate and the vultures. "Goyokin" takes the larger view -- it refuses to manipulate its audience. Seen in the era of "Rambo," that's darn refreshing. Goyokin, opening today in a one-week engagement at the Biograph, is unrated and contains considerable violence.