If there are no swords drawn and the samurai are all disguised as monks for the entire picture, can it still be considered a samurai film? I looked in the Liverputty handbook, but could not find a direct rule regarding the matter. So I went to the Council of Elders and they decided that it could be, so long as there was a reasonable level of suspense.
The background to this early Kurosawa film is intriguing. It began at the end of the war and by the time they were shooting, the war had ended. The American censors banned it because of its bushido elements until 1952, when it was eventually released. One can only imagine the uncertainty in the air with the fate of the country, let alone this particular project, as the Toho crew pressed on to finish it. The results: it is a slightly messy film. There are no obvious climaxes to it and it tends to follow the noh form (it was based on a noh play) in many ways over a film form. It is essentially built around one scene in the middle of the picture.
The story: The Gempei War has just ended and now, two brothers - allies of that war - have turned into enemies. Yoshitsune, a victorious general in the Gempei War, is being hunted by his brother, Yoritomo. Yoshitsune, along with six men, attempt to reach Hidehira Fujiwara, who could offer Yoshitsune safety. To do so, they had to pass through a barrier in Kaga Province, under the command of its magistrate, Saemon Tagashi (played by Sanshiro Sugata star, Susumu Fujita). The film is chiefly about passing through that barrier.
With Yoshitsune's right hand man, Benkei (Denjirô Ôkôchi), leading the way, the six men, disguised as monks, with Yoshitsune disguised as a porter and another actual porter (Kenicho Enomoto) providing comedy relief, travel to the barrier. There is a tense back and forth between Benkei and Tagashi. Rumor has it that Yoshitsune and his men are traveling in the guise of monks. Yoshitsune as a porter looks suspiciously royal, which threatens to smash their plans. But quick thinking Benkei beats the porter, which convinces Tagashi that these are not the monks he is looking for. What man would beat his master, right? (In the play, Tagashi is aware that it is Yoshitsune, but lets them pass because he feels that Benkei's willingness to beat his own master in order to save that master's life is a touching sign of devotion and loyalty).
After passing through the barrier, Benkei humbly begs the forgiveness of Yoshitsune, who is cool with it. A sake drinking scene follows, which allows prewar comedy sensation, Kenicho Enomoto, to show off some pretty impressive facial dexterity as well as a comically satisfying interpretive dance.
The film also has a young Takashi Shimura, as one of the "monks", who looks very much like the older Takashi Shimura. Even then he had the perfect face to express humanity.
Be forwarned. This may be a pretty good movie, but the transfer on the current DVD is cheap and offers some horrible subtitles. TCM has shown a much better and professionally slick version, but when that will be released on DVD is anybody's guess.