Secret of the Urn (Hien Iaigiri)

Director: Hideo Gosha
Year: 1966
Production Company: Toei
Running Time: 91 minutes

From what I have read on the Internet, it appears that “Sazen” followed in the themes and mood of the early films in the series quite closely, but if that is the case Gosha broke out of this mold quite dramatically with a gritty tense film full of action and political corruption. It too incorporates the basic plot of the missing urn that the Yagyu family is looking for, but it takes almost everything else and turns it on its head. The narrative is much more complex as are the characters and though Sazen and Ofuji are in the end basically good people, they are much rougher around the edges with more than a hint of cynicism and larceny in their souls.

This was Gosha’s third samurai film and he was to become one of the premier directors of this genre over the next decade. The time of the noble samurai hero was somewhat passé by the mid-60’s and here Gosha creates a classic anti-hero – embittered, isolated, untrusting, but still with a sense of justice buried somewhere beneath his encrusted anger at the world. He has reason. As a member of a high-ranking clan, Tange (Nakamura Kinnosuke) is summoned by his lord to perform a duty. The lord is in the middle of whipping a confession out of a woman – she has admitted to being a spy and has named her accomplice in the clan. The accomplice is the fiancé to Hagino, a good female friend of Tange’s and he is ordered to kill this man in a duel and spare the honor of his friend. He takes the man out and issues him a challenge to a duel, but the fellow tricks Tange by asking him to assist him in committing seppuku where upon he stabs Tange in the eye. Suddenly a group of men appear over the hilltop and march down and cut off Tange’s arm and throw him into a ditch for dead.
The Yagyu clan is “honored” by the Shogun by being requested to pay for the rebuilding of a sacred temple, but this is a ploy by one of his ministers, Gunraku, to bankrupt and ruin them because he knows they don’t have the funds to pay for such a thing. Lord Yagyu (Tetsuro Tamba) learns that the urn has the secret to a huge amount of money and sends his brother Genzaburo to collect it at their summer home. Gunraku hears of this and sends his own men to intercept the urn and take it from them. A sneak thief hears this plan and tells his sister, Ofuji (Keiko Awaji), a lower class geisha and they decide to try and steal it as well.
These forces all come together at the river bank in a bloody mêlée of killing and "who has the urn" as it jumps from one hand to another before if finally lands in the hands of a young orphan boy who speeds away with men in close pursuit. The boy runs into a small hut and his pursuers are right behind him, but suddenly they come flying out followed by a gnarled one-eyed-one armed man roaring at them to stop. Genzaburo demands the urn but Sazen refuses to hand it over and escapes with a boat provided by Ofuji and her brother.
Sazen is now a very different man than the one who went to kill his friend’s fiancé – disfigured, shunned by all as a monster and deserted by his clan, he is out only for himself with loyalty to no one and he openly mocks the samurai code of honor. In order to get the urn away from Sazen, Ofuji and her brother attempt various ploys such as getting him drunk or seducing him but this is interrupted by a slew of ninja’s who have tracked them down to kill them. Instead they meet the blade of Sazen as he cuts through them one after another. From this point on the film becomes largely an action triangle with both sides trying to get the urn from Sazen while he is most interested in getting to know Ofuji better.
In the end of course he does the right thing and fights his way through hoards of ninja’s to recover the urn and return it to its rightful owner. This is an excellent fast moving action film without an ounce of fat in it and what one would have thought would be the beginning of a series instead became the end of Tange Sazen films for years to come (though Goshi was to remake this film for television in 1982).

My rating for this film: 7.5