Hiroshi Inagaki is a name that needs to be shouted from more mountain tops. Sadly, his filmology is inadequately accessible in the U.S. Both Wagstaff and I have already sung his praises over the Samurai Trilogy (1954-6), which represents half of what is available on DVD under Inagaki’s name and stands besides The Seven Samurai as an early perfection of form. The other films, Chushingura (1962), Samurai Banners (1969) and, Incident at Bloodpass, are all exciting fresh films in their own rights.
What is not available from his filmology is a laundry list of great sounding titles that hopefully have some availability in Japan and perhaps subsequently in the U.S. Inagaki started directing for Toho in his early twenties around 1928. Throughout the 30s and 40s he did numerous period film trilogies including a previous series about Musashi in 1940-2. Other intriguing titles include: Last Days of Edo (1941) – perhaps an early disaster film?; Signal Fires of Shanghai (1944) – pertaining to the occupation?; Pirate Ship (1951) – with Toshiro Mifune, this sounds like prime action fodder; Conclusion of Kojiro Sasaki: Duel on Ganryu Island (1951) – this film seems to be part 3 of the Musashi story but as a stand alone (with Mifune playing Musashi); Vagabonds in a Country at War (1952) – sounds like a war film with two love triangles…or would that be a love hexagon?; etc. After the Samurai Trilogy, Inagaki made a two film series called (and I paraphrase) the Secret Yagyu Scrolls (1957-8), again with Mifune. No doubt, this series has some good ninja action. Inagaki went on to make dozens more samurai films, a good piece with Mifune, before we get to the charted end of his career: Samurai Banners and Incident at Bloodpass.
Let’s focus on Samurai Banners.This is a large complex story about a peripheral civil war following the Gempei War and the period of unification that ultimately leads to major unification figures like Nobunaga Obu and Ieyasu Tokugawa. This is not a beer movie – and there are plenty of expositive titles and dates and battle maps and like stuff as you would find in films like Midway or Battle of the Bulge. It is artfully and clearly done and should not intimidate the casual viewer. Just be forewarned that it is, in part, a history lesson as well as a compelling character study of its central figure, Kansuke Yamamoto (Toshiro Mifune).
Kansuke is a brilliant strategic thinker – coldly calculating, ruthless, deceitful and fiercely loyal to his vision. The film makes no apologies or fronts for Kansukes treachery, nor does it take away from his majesty. When he is first introduced in the film, he is in the process of a well thought out but cruel double-cross that leads him down the road towards becoming Lord Takeda’s main strategy man. As Lord Takeda describes him, with a thankful smirk playing across his mouth, Kansuke is a “terrifying man.” On the one hand he’s the best strategist you have and you are glad he is on your side, on the other hand, his cruelty is an uneasy method to that very success.
In the west, such a dichotomy is something for a film to fret over, but this film leaves the fretting to the audience and shows us everything including his humility, loyalty and compassion without apologies or condemnation. And that goes for the other characters as well. Key figures are shown doing horrible things or having tragic things happen to them that would surely paint their characters entirely in other films, but here those things merely mark a certain passage of time – being baggage they carry throughout, but also a episode that they managed to overcome or get beyond. By the end of the film, characters you thought you would hate because of earlier crimes, you find yourself admiring in light of their virtues and vices.
And yet, as I mentioned, it is an epic movie about one domain expanding its reach over neighboring domains in an effort to become a unifying national power. The domain in question is Kai, and it is ruled by the Takeda Clan. We are not sure of Kansuke’s origins, though he seems to be a ronin of some sort, but we know how he infiltrates the ranks of the House of Takeda and we see him vow to make “Lord Takeda of Kai, the mightiest Lord in the nation.”What we don’t yet know is that he is playing a multi-dimensional game of long-term chess that is light years ahead of his adversaries. Events are happening outside of Kai. The Princess Nene, wife to Lord Harunobu of Suwa, but of Takeda lineage, was a key political tie between the two domains (Kai and Suwa). But she died and now Kai is facing the threat that Suwa may ally itself with Lord Murakami of Northern Shinano…something that jeopardizes Kai’s security. As one adviser describes the situation with Kai’s other neighbors:
“Lord Hojo of Odawara…..and Lord Imagawa of Suruga….these two are not only related to you [Lord Takeda], they’re bound to you by treaties. Lord Saito Dosan of Mino is blocked by these treacherous mountains…so, obviously he won’t be able to move east toward us. East, west and south….if those three directions pose no threat…then we’ll strike North [Suwa]…This is our only chance to attack Suwa in Shinano.”
So Lord Takeda amasses an army of 20,000 and leads it into Suwa and prepares to attack Takashima Castle. Until Kansuke persuades Lord Takeda to negotiate a generous surrender, thus reaffirming ties with Suwa. But, though accepting the surrender, Lord Harunobu of Suwa does not necessarily intend to stay shackled to Kai. In a pandering show of friendship and familial bonds (through the deceased Princess Nene), Harunobu visits Lord Takeda of Kai three times in a month. This makes Lord Takeda and Kansuke uneasy and as a result, Lord Harunobu will not return from his third visit. Kansuke, believing the frequent visits from Harunobu are to obligate a return visit from Lord Takeda, where Takeda will be vulnerable to assassination, urges Takeda to pre-emptively assassinate Harunobu. After Lord Harunobu is killed, Suwa eventually takes Takashima Castle. Through a stroke of fortune, Princess Yu, Lord Harunobu’s father, is captured by Kansuke’s men. Kansuke loves her but is forced by Lord Takeda to hand her over to be his lord's concubine, a particularly humiliating circumstance given that Takeda pretty wiped out the rest of her family. However, there is a silver lining to the misfortune and Kansuke urges Princess Yu to provide an heir for Takeda, thus cementing the bond between Suwa and Kai and ensuring that that her family's blood endures. That all happens in the first hour – the story continues to develop in the remaining 100 minutes.
The new young prince, Katsuyori Takeda, is the figure you would most likely run across in a general history of Japan. He was part of the opposition to Oda Nobunaga’s unification efforts in the latter part of the 16th century. Nobunaga eventually defeated and executed Katsuyori. Katsuyori’s death would mark the end of the Takeda Clan in its 28th generation. But the film takes place several decades before that, when the Takeda Clan gained control of the four domains it would have when it threatened Nobunaga and Ieyasu Tokugawa. Thus, this grand epic is but a supporting subplot in a larger event of Japanese history.
Mifune’s performance is stellar as always. How he can sit cross legged on a tatami floor wearing a kimono and yet look completely different from role to role is beyond me. In this film, he sports a gimp leg and a nasty crescent shaped scar on his face. Though crippled, he is nevertheless deadly and menacing. He wears a shiny black helmet with horns that makes him look half hero, half Darth Lord. When he holds up the newborn Katsuyori and declares his complete devotion, he is scary in that he is so intense that he may harm the newborn, and yet, he is comforting because you know that kid will be under Kansuke’s able protection.Inagaki’s direction is also markedly different than his other available movies might suggest. He shows that he is perfectly at home with wide screen compositions. Inagaki is a frequent user of slow unobtrusive tracking shots that pack a lot of information into single frames in a very fluid manner. And yet, he can provide a jarring shot meant to wow the audience. There is a particularly impressive, if somewhat jerky, shot of an army of 22,000 moving from a village through the mountains. Inagaki must have shot this from a plane and then slowed it down – as opposed to shooting it from a helicopter. But whatever the method, it superbly captures the moment and scene in an omniscient manner that has more direct parallels in other mediums outside film, like a large diorama or one of those magnificent cylcoramas you would see at Gettysburg, where the viewer can see everything in scope and detail in a collapsed space of time. This isn’t a bird’s eye view so much as a deity’s eye view. It is through shots like this that Inagaki manages to balance a riveting personal story with the broad scope of the story. Often, in other similar epics, the personal stories feel tacked on as “color” for the dry facts of the events – but here, the personal story drives the larger events. The two are one. Certainly, other great and even better films do this as well, but I say it here and about this movie, Samurai Banners, to inform the reader that it is a film of considerable accomplishment.
The score is also excellent. It is so western at times that you wonder if it is a western. It is the kind of energetic and charging orchestral sound track that is needed to carry such a long film. It will get pleasantly stuck in your head the next day. And low and behold, the film has an intermission. Most films should never even think about running over two hours long – but for the epic, you might as well go as long as it takes to finish the job. And when you exceed two and a half hours, at least have the decency to include an intermission. Structure the movie so that the audience can get their second wind. Samurai Banners honors this “way”.