Kihachi Okamoto (1924-2005) was a Japanese filmmaker who spent an entire career demolishing the widely accepted viewpoint that there was any honor in violence. Although recognized as a preeminent director of action films for Toho studios his work was constantly being eclipsed by more critically acclaimed directors like Masaki Kobayashi and Akira Kurosawa. Yet, what makes Okamoto’s films prescient is how the theme of history being an invention by those in power runs throughout his oeuvre. The typical Okamoto protagonist is an outcast and victim of the times that they live in, but within this hopelessness came a freedom, be it through death or a rejection of established social codes. So please come join me as we explore the inelegant, the sardonic, the brutal, and the comic films of Kihachi Okamoto.
The Sengoku period (1467-1573) was a time of great upheaval. Kyoto, the central capital, had suffered extensive damage during the Onin War and as a result there came to be a complete erosion of the social order, ultimately leading to a never-ending cycle of civil war throughout Japan. Soon the provincial daimyo and magistrates that relied on the shogunate for support found themselves isolated and vulnerable to internal as well as external strife. The strong, like the Shimazu, Takeda, and Imagawa clans, established their own independent domains while weak and ineffective rulers were usurped by their own subjects and retainers, like the Oda had done to the Shiba clan, leading many innocent and not-so innocent people to suffer bloody ignominious deaths. This phenomenon of social upheaval where traditional values no longer held sway and those in power were in constant danger of being overthrown became known as gekokujou, a term which literally means “the bottom overcomes/conquers the top.” And it is within this backdrop that Kihachi Okamoto sets his 1963 chambara classic Sengoku Yaro (aka Warring Clans).
Although the 1960’s gave birth to a plethora of anti-establishment jidai-geki pictures with directors as diverse as Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Gosha, and Masahiro Shinoda contributing films to this very popular genre, one filmmaker that could perfectly meld physical comedy, a cynical worldview, and social commentary into each of the 39 films that he directed was Kihachi Okamoto. Just as fellow genre compatriots Seijun Suzuki and Masaki Kobayashi were greatly influenced by their battle experiences in the Pacific War, Okamoto also utilized the violence and cruelty he personally witnessed as the starting off point to his very unique oeuvre. Unlike many of those critically acclaimed filmmakers though, there was a loose almost improvisatory feeling to Okamoto’s work, allowing the casual viewer to enjoy his films just for the sheer visceral thrill of watching the action on the screen but also rewarding those who took the time to dig deeper.
For his first foray into chambara territory Okamoto and his co-screenwriters Ken Sano and Shinichi Sekizawa throw every samurai cliché in the book, even inventing a few along the way, and offer up a fresh take on Japan’s noble warrior class. Instead of bogging down the narrative with a lot of expository information the audience is thrown right into the thick of things. The film opens upon a pair of feet, belonging to the main protagonist Ochi Kittan (Yuzo Kayama), a former member of the Takeda clan, walking on a gravelly mountain path. We are then introduced to a black-garbed figure, Suzumeno Saburoza (Tadao Nakamaru), loyal spy and assassin for the Takeda, blocking Kittan’s way. The two men exchange some terse words but a duel soon ensues, swords clash and Saburoza falls to what we presume to be his death. Then, before Ochi can catch his breath, a scraggly looking samurai, Doko Harima (Ichiro Nakatani), comes out of hiding. Ochi expects a duel, the audience expects blood to be shed, but instead both men opt to break bread together. However, as they start to eat, another attacker lunges at both men, but in a flash, Ochi dispatches his would-be assassin. Cue hard bop jazz score and the title: Sengoku Yaro. This three-minute opening salvo sets up the entire film, the samurai equivalent of a road movie, with Ochi Kittan trying to constantly escape his violent past but ending up having to fight and kill just to survive. Along the way he makes friends, finds love with a tough but gorgeous woman played by Yuriko Hoshi, and is used as a pawn in the conflict between Takeda Shingen and Oda Nobunaga.
What elevates Sengoku Yaro from being just another run-of-the-mill adventure story though is the comic satire that Okamoto sneaks in between the carnage. Instead of the noble self-sacrificing ronin that you would find in a film like Akira Kurosawa’s Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) the samurai we find in Okamoto’s film are at best sly tricksters and at there very worst manipulative exploiters. Bushido, the samurai code of conduct, is not treated as some sacred ideal that all “good warriors” aspire to but as just a set of guidelines that samurai follow when it suits their interests. Ochi starts the film reeking of naivety with dreams of one day ruling the country and believing that a good heart is the key to survival, but as the movie progresses along he acquires a hard-won understanding that in an age of constant warfare, just as the Sengoku period was, those who want to reach the top have to be able to, as Kinoshita Tokichiro (Makoto Sato) says, kill even their own family.
Although the parallels to Seven Samurai run deep at times Sengoku Yaro does feel more like a bizarre parody of Kurosawa’s film, no surprise since both films were Toho productions and, though both directors do use the Western as the template for some of their best jidai-geki pieces, Okamoto never allows his reverence for the work of John Ford to neuter his sardonic and biting sense of humor. For example, whereas Kurosawa’s stoic ronin had to protect a poor farming village, the action-oriented Okamoto has a traveling caravan of miscreants risking their lives to protect a cargo of what they believe to be 300 muskets for Oda Nobunaga. And while Kurosawa’s heroic band risked life and limb for some measly balls of best online casino rice, the Bashaku are comprised of lascivious greedy men whose main concern is the gold they’ll be getting after they complete their delivery. Then of course is the choice of antagonist. Kurosawa frames his narrative as the conflict between the farmers/ronin against savage bandits, but in Sengoku Yaro we are on the side of outcasts, men who are free from the burden of social obligation. The Bashaku is an organization who accepts all comers into their fold, no matter how shady their past may be, as long as they can fight and ride a horse and of course there are the pirates led by Murakami Suigun, a man who in one scene has no qualms about raping an unconscious woman, but by film’s climax we applaud their reappearance as they help the Bashaku fight off the Takeda army.
The primary antagonist in Okamoto’s film is the samurai caste itself. Kichi (Yuzo Kayama) begins his journey believing that his previous boss, Takeda Shingen, was a cruel and evil man and thus, he sides with Tokichiro, a man working for Oda Nobunaga, thinking him to be the lesser of two evils, but ironically by the end of the film neither Takeda nor Nobunaga are viewed in a less harsh light. Kichi realizes that although a samurai is beholden to a daimyo, no matter what side a man chooses to fight for he will ultimately be nothing more than a disposable pawn in someone else’s bid for power. Thus, while Seven Samurai is an elegy to the samurai, the four grave mounds standing as a monument to the sacrifice Kambei (Takashi Shimura) and his men make so that the farmers can live and eventually supplant the samurai class. Sengoku Yaro is an indictment of the samurai, a group whose very purpose is antithetical to the goal of peace and unification, making the film’s conclusion quite apt with Suzumeno Saburoza, a relic of the lawless era, standing atop the funeral pyre made for the fallen members of the Bashaku and burning up with the other dead refuse. With the end of the Sengoku period there came to be the death of the samurai warrior and the birth of the samurai bureaucrat.
Of course Japan scholars and cinephiles alike will note the way that Okamoto toys with historicity. The muskets being taken to Oda Nobunaga will in the long run be used to not only crush Takeda Shingen’s army but also end his life; the story of which would be famously covered 17 years later in Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980). In Okamoto’s film though, the muskets that so many people are chasing after are nothing more than a MacGuffin in the story. What’s most interesting in Sengoku Yaro is the handling of Kinoshita Tokichiro, commonly known by many as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a man whose entire life consisted of playing several different identities before taking on the role of kampaku and brought an end to the Sengoku and ushered in the Momoyama period. Characterized in real-life as well as in Okamoto’s film as both a weasel and a monkey Tokichiro is the antithesis of the stereotypical samurai. Tokichiro, born of peasant stock, rose up through the ranks from servant to sandal-bearer and finally daimyo. Thus it is quite apt that while other warriors in the film are associated with traditional weapons like the katana, yari, and yumi Tokichiro is armed only with his ability to doubletalk. Which is evident in the scene where Tokichiro bares his torso to Ariyoshi Munesuke, the head of the Bashaku, and threatens seppuku. There is no discussion of giri or ninjo nor even an exchange of pleasantries between the two men, Tokichiro, the great hustler and mass manipulator, dives headfirst and uses the last ditch effort of all desperate samurai to make Munesuke capitulate to his demands, a comic parody of Masaki Kobayashi’s earlier film Harakiri (1962).
With the well-earned reputation of being a key film in the shinobi-eiga genre it should be no surprise to viewers that the theme of deception is the singular through-line that connects every scene in Sengoku Yaro. From Kichi and Harima posing as farmers to Tokichiro dressing up some vagabonds as samurai, part of the thrill in watching the movie is trying to decipher the myriad of ways that characters are constantly being duped by one another. An example of this is during the Bashaku’s journey to the Kiso River during which in the far background a constant wisp of campfire smoke keeps trailing the caravan. Could it be the Iga? Is the bandit Taro of Suzuka after the muskets also? We fear the worst and yet Okamoto undermines our suspicions when we later find that the smoke is from one of Tokichiro’s retainers, Roku, secretly carting the real muskets to the land of Oda.
Beyond the thrilling narrative, also mentioned about the film are the stylistic choices that Okamoto makes to tell his story. The first is his use of kinetic editing, by which I mean that Okamoto and his editor always seem to cut on an action point, one example being a transition from a daytime scene of Kichi and Harima bathing in a lake to a nighttime scene in the camp’s hot spring. Instead of using classical editing techniques, e.g. the invisible cut, or something more meditative, like Ozu’s famous pillow shots, Okamoto has the characters at the lake dip their heads in the water followed by a quick cut and then Doko and Harima lifting their heads up above the water now at the Bashaku camp and seemingly transported several hours into the future. These sudden and somewhat erratic cuts add a sense of urgency to the film, as if the characters are in a desperate headlong race to meet their ultimate fate. And of course there is also the film’s use of practical effects to lend the “ninjas” in the movie a mystical aura. The most flamboyant being the hypnosis scene between Murakami Suigun and Saghiri, a scene which has Okamoto and his cinematographer Yuzuru Aizawa borrowing heavily from German Expressionism, specifically Fritz Lang’s Mabuse trilogy, and just through the use of shadow and light evoke such a sinister and eerie atmosphere that it puts all the CGI and 3-D technology that filmmakers are trying to push on audience’s today as the “next wave” as nothing more than just juvenile and unsophisticated. Okamoto never allows spectacle to be the centerpiece of his film.
After completion of Sengoku Yaro, Kihachi Okamoto would continue making films in a gamut of genres for Toho studios. Of course, like many studio directors during that era, he would eventually jump ship as television ate away at production budgets and audience attention spans so much so that, by the 1970’s, Okamoto started his own production company, Kihachi Productions, in an attempt to produce the films he wanted to make. Okamoto could never fully escape the jidai-geki films that he cut his directorial teeth on, though. He came back to the genre several times during his 40-plus year career in the entertainment business. Although, in the West, he is primarily known for Dai-bosatsu Toge (The Sword of Doom, 1966), that film is an incomplete masterpiece and atypical of his oeuvre. It lacks the insanity of Satsujin Kyo Jidai (Age of Assassins, 1967), the satire of Dokuritsu Gurentai (Desperado Outpost, 1959), the bawdiness of Tokkan (1975), or the pure joy of watching a chambara action flick like Sengoku Yaro.