(Author’s Note: This is a slightly edited version of comments I gave at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ recent screening of Goyokin, the final film in this season’s “Films on Film” series for AMPAS members.)
In the 1960s, when I was a student at USC Cinema, the major Japanese film studios had flagship theaters in Los Angeles to showcase their newest releases. The theaters were located from Little Tokyo downtown to the Hollywood and Mid-Wilshire districts. I saw Dahei Studios’ Zatoichi blind-samurai films, starring Shintaro Katsu, at the Kokusai Theater near Crenshaw and Jefferson boulevards.
I saw late Ozu masterpieces at the Kabuki on Adams Boulevard and Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro, starring Toshiro Mifune, at the Toho La Brea on the northwestern corner of La Brea Avenue and 9th Street. (It is now Bethel Presbyterian Church.)
I mention these places with such specific recall because that was a veritable golden age of Japanese cinema, and for us cineastes, going to these theaters was an almost spiritual act.
The huge screen of the Toho was larger than that of the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater. In late summer of 1969, Toho’s much anticipated “chanbara” epic, Goyokin, starring Tatsuya Nakadai, opened on the giant Toho screen. It was advertised as the first Japanese film shot with Panavision anamorphic lenses. The 2:40:1 aspect ratio was not new to Japanese cinema, as most of Kurosawa’s films from the 1960s and ’70s were shot in the proprietary Tohoscope format.
It was not the clarity of the Panavision lenses that so surprised the audiences of Goyokin, but the skill with which director Hideo Gosha and cinematographer Kozo Okazaki wove with taut dramatic flair what could have been a fairly routine tale of a ronin’s betrayal and revenge. Goyokin begins with what we soon discover is a flashback to the massacre of 30 innocent villagers: repeated shots of screaming, black ravens pecking at human remains as a young woman returns to her devastated village. Nakadai, already a veteran of films by Japan’s most prestigious directors, including Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa and Mikio Naruse, was chosen by Gosha to play the guilt-ridden, masterless samurai Magobei Wakizaka, a warrior who stood by as the slaughter of the villagers unfolded.
It is Magobei’s growing guilt, fueled by rage, that propels the movie toward an inevitable one-on-one showdown between him and his murderous brother-in-law. The confrontation unfolds on a field of freshly fallen snow and is intercut with frenzied village drummers counterpointing the ritualistic choreography of imminent death. Nakadai’s deeply internalized performance validates the observation that if Mifune is Japanese cinema’s John Wayne, then surely Nakadai is its Marlon Brando.
The technical and aesthetic artistry of Goyokin is, finally, in the service of Nakadai’s stunning performance. In his 2014 video interview for the AMPAS Oral History Program, this veteran of Japanese cinema, with more than 150 film credits, defined himself not as a movie star, but as a deeply committed theater actor. Today, at 85, he continues to work in film; his most recent role was in Lear on the Shore for director Masahiro Kobayashi.
The forces of nature in Goyokin — icy rain, drifting snow, erratic winds, cascading signal fires, ribboned surf washing against the snowy tide line — almost overwhelm the film’s characters. It is a hostile place, this peninsula, bereft of the taming formalism of late Tokugawa Edo culture. It is an environment that challenges the will to survive.
Yet it is there that Magobei must find his redemption. He does, but it comes at a high price. Goyokin is not a simple film to analyze, whether from the perspective of plot, dramatic arc, or even ambitious cinematography and large-scale physical staging.
I have championed Goyokin since I first saw it in 1969. It is not an easy film to find, partly because the rights were bought by the creator of the Billy Jack films, Tom Laughlin, who gave it an American setting as a vanity vehicle for himself titled The Master Gunfighter. Of course, Sergio Leone borrowed the plot and visual details of Yojimbo for his own Western/samurai epic, A Fistful of Dollars, and changed forever our view of the Western genre. But Laughlin did film history no such favor in his acquisition of the rights to Goyokin. In fact, he all but assured that the original would disappear. This may be why there is no high-quality DVD transfer available and why screenings are rare. It also fell prey to an exploitative American marketing campaign that gave the film another title.
In February of 1984, I began preproduction with Paul Schrader in Japan on Mishima, about Japan’s greatest post-World War II writer. I asked the production office to set up a screening of Goyokin for the Japanese crew. No one recalled having seen the film; its director, Gosha, was by then better known for his contemporary yakuza films. A print was eventually found and screened. My gaffer, Kazuo Shimomura, and our brilliant production designer, Eiko Ishioka, understood right away why the “look” of this movie was a valuable reference for me as we prepared to film Mishima. This screening marks the first time I've ever discussed this influence.
Goyokin is not a movie that is dialogue-dependent, although the opening scenes employ a narrator to set the story in its greater historical context. This technique is quite common in the jidaigeki genre of historical drama, as it evolved out of Japanese Noh theater. Several flashbacks early in the film also pay homage to this classical tradition. If you are not familiar with this structure, you may feel a bit confused by the plot at first. Fear not and hang on; it all quickly becomes clear, and the film takes off like a rocket.
The emotive style of several of the supporting actors comes out of the broad gestural traditions of Kabuki and Kyogen theater, while the deeply internalized one of Nakadai reflects his empathy with American and European theater. In Japan, this Western style is called “shingeki” (“new drama").
Nakadai’s Magobei struggles throughout for self-atonement. His face, a roadmap of agony, dominates the film and carries it through multiple brilliantly choreographed swordplay sequences. His opponents are not only his corrupt clan and his own brother-in-law, but also Nature herself.
These primal forces are almost preternatural characters, beyond what you will see in most historical “chanbara” epics. There is a near-Darwinian inevitability afoot. But it is Nakadai’s tensile strength both as a warrior and as a man in moral conflict that makes this genre film rise to such an epic scale. Mifune’s heroic but often barely self-reflective bravado must stand in the shadow of Nakadai’s always multi-sided figures.