ABOUT the time that America said get along to the cowboy, Japan said sayonara to the samurai. It was 1969 and the strong, silent hero was making way for Mr. Nice Guy. Sam Peckinpah celebrated the last of a breed in "The Wild Bunch" that year; and Hideo Gosha made "Goyokin," in praise of the last of the samurai.
"Goyokin," its classic violence set against an emerging, modern society, is sprawling, splendid and glossy. Though acknowledged as one of the last, great samurai spectacles, it lacks the high style and mythic scale of the earlier, starker, black-and-white epics. But it observes the customary rituals of the genre, with its flashing swordplay and blood blossoming in snow.
Tatsuya Nakadai of "Kagemusha" fame stars as a 19th-century samurai who renounces his clan after learning that his master ordered the massacre of a vilage of peasants to hide a clan crime. "If this is the samurai way, I'm through with the samurai," he vows.
But as every lone hero knows, you can't just hang up your guns or unbuckle your sword. So Nakadai returns to honor his chivalric code and avenge the villagers against his old comrades. Naturally, there are ambushes aplenty along the way.
The action is less artistic than we've come to expect from such productions, but it's just as violent. Gosha, who also co-wrote the screenplay, began his career in television and the film has a slicker, more commercial look than its predecessors.
Nakadai makes a reluctant hero, like Clint Eastwood, if you will: handsome, solemn, no nonsense and with a squinty eye. Tetsuro Tamba costars as the head of Nakadai's clan, with Yoko Tsukasa as his wife, and Ruriko Asaoka as an entertaining dice cheat.
The demise of the samurai tradition and the movies that honored it is saddening, and "Goyokin" is all the more remarkable as an epic epitaph. --
GOYOKIN (R) -- In Japanese with English subtitles, at the Biograph.