Wicked Priest (Gokuaku Bozu)

A few years before he was to begin the “Lone Wolf and Cub” series of films, Tomisaburo Wakayama had already been involved in some other series  – this being one. At the same time as “Wicked Priest” was being made (1968 to 1971), he was also making two other series of films – “Gokudo” (1969 to 1974) which was a series of 11 films about the life of Yakuzas and “Red Peony: Lady Gambler” (1968 to 1972) which was about a female gambler starring Junko Fuji with Tomisaburo showing up in most of the 8 episodes. Definitely a busy man! But he had to be in order to try and keep up with his half brother Shintaro Katsu who was making the outpouring of Zatoichi films as well as many other films. In “Wicked Priest” Tomisaburo often has a strong resemblance to Shintaro from certain angles – especially in one episode in which he is blinded! There are more than a few nods to Zatoichi in the series.
I am not clear on how many films in this series there are. "Japanese Cinema" by Thomas Weisser lists four, but there may be two others as well. Of the three films in the series that I have found, one is clearly not among the films that Weisser lists and I found reference to another film – “Cast a Wicked Net” (1970) that doesn’t appear to be any of the five films I know of. As far as I can tell neither of the first two films in the series are available so the ones reviewed here may be episodes 3,4 and 5 or possibly 3, 4 and 6 – if anyone is an expert on the series please fill me in. The series takes place in the Meiji period (1868-1912) – probably near the end of the century as guns seem to be becoming prevalent.
The Wicked Priest is an interesting character – clearly influenced by the wandering tales of Zatoichi, but the Buddhist priest is a much more shaded hero who has a strong sense of justice but also a great enjoyment in the vices of women, gambling and drinking - a moral issue that he has trouble reconciling. He is a strong burly man with a gashing scar that travels from his hairline down to his left eye, dressed in a simple cassock with a straw basket hat to protect him from the sun (and the occasional sword!), prayer beads around his neck and a staff always at the ready – that contains a sword of course. Beneath his garments, his body is designed by an intricate pattern of tattoos that cover his chest and back. He is generally an amiable person with a lecherous eye until he comes across some injustice at which point he turns into a thundering coil of anger. He narrates, “Let all evils fall on me. I live for the challenge of conquering them.”
Each of the three films I saw had certain similarities – like Zatoichi the beginning of each episode finds Shinkai (the Wicked Priest) in a different town where trouble soon finds him. He comes across situations where the powerful are taking advantage of the weak and does what he can to fix this – eventually at the point of his deadly sword. There is usually a woman in there as well that he can’t resist and who can’t resist him. As well as being a terrific swordsman, he is apparently quite the cocksman as well and few women can resist him – and once they succumb they become addicted! In each episode his nemesis Ryutatsu the Whipmaster (Bunta Sugawara) shows up to challenge Shinkai in a duel to the death – which obviously never is concluded. Ryutatsu has a deep abiding hatred for the Wicked Priest and though blind he manages to follow him all around the country and show up at the most inopportune times. Played by Bunta, he is an imposing figure – tall, thin and like a grim reaper with his whip always at the ready. The films tend to be comparable to the Zatoichi films in terms of graphic violence for the most part –  the two-fingered thrust being particularly gory – but there is nothing here to compare to the crazy over the top violence of the “Lone Wolf” series. There are usually about three to four action scenes – one that always begins the film and one that always ends the film – but there is a lot of plot and character development in between.
According to Weisser, in the first episode Shinkai and Ryutatsu are both Buddhist priests who duel and it was at this time that Ryutatsu became blinded by a two-finger thrust on the part of Shinkai. In episode two, Ryutatsu recovers and is converted into Christianity and makes it his life's work to track down Shinkai and kill him. I am not entirely sure as to the accuracy of this as Weisser makes errors in his summaries of episodes 3 and 4, which he would not have made had he seen the films!

Wicked Priest: Pilgrimage of Death (Gokuaku Bozu: Nembutsu Hitokiri-Tabi)
Director: Harada Takashi
Year: 1969
Production Company: Toei
Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

It must be the prayer beads. Shinkai is walking through a small town when a gentleman invites him home to have dinner and deflower his daughter. It is the custom of this town that before marrying, a woman has to lose her virginity to a stranger – now if I could just find this place! No one is stranger than I am. After doing his priestly duty, he runs off quickly before the daughter asks for seconds. He next finds himself in a rural village that is nearly all female as the men are away fishing for the next few months and he happily looks forward to having some fun. A woman named Onine invites him to her house, but she soon discovers that Shinkai killed her husband three years before and asks him to leave before the dead man’s brother returns. He has been looking for Shinkai all these years to revenge his brother.

Before Shinkai can leave or satisfy his lust, the town is taken over by a group of rebels who are planning a conspiracy against the government and are waiting for an arm’s shipment. They begin mistreating the villagers and Shinkai feels obliged to help them out. The brother returns, but after first dueling Shinkai, the two of them band together to fight the gang. There is also a religious fraud that Shinkai blinds with his patented two-finger jab deep into the eyeballs and afterwards he tells the fellow “now you can be a blind masseuse and go from town to town”. In the end Shinkai removes his shirt to reveal his tattoos and takes on the entire gang single handily. Ryutatsu shows up near the end and they duel for a bit before Shinkai has to break off to save the village.

Wicked Priest: Comes Back (Gokuaku Bozu: Nembutsu Sandan Giri)
Director: Harada Takashi
Year: 1970
Production Company: Toei
Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

Shinkai runs into his childhood friend, Takagano (Ichiro Nakatani), in a gambling hall where he has been trying to cheat the house. They catch Takagano and he is forced to remove a finger – which he chooses to do with his weapon of choice – a shotgun. When they were young boys they both left their small village of Nogata and went to make their way in the world – Shinkai to hopefully become a famous Buddhist priest and Takagano to become wealthy – neither succeeded as one is a poor wandering priest and the other a lowly Yakuza. Shinkai is returning home for the first time since he left all those years ago to pray at his mother’s grave. Before getting there though he is waylaid by a “nun” who invites him in from the cold, “accidentally” leaves her bedroom door open to entice Shinkai and then tries to rob and kill him! He is able to turn the tables even though she has a deadly crotch grip.

Once he arrives at his village he soon discovers that not all is well. Two gangs who want to control the river workers – the main employment of the town – are competing for power and exploiting the workers. At the same time some men with a grudge track Shinkai down and hire Takagano to kill him. If that’s not enough, Ryutatsu shows up once again. Shinkai sides with his old town against both gangs, but an explosion blinds him and he has to wander off like a wounded animal to heal. He is saved by the "nun" Hakuyo who nurses him back and also teaches him to fight without seeing. He then does a Zatoichi and takes on the gangs. Ryutatsu realizes his condition and decides that instead of killing Shinkai in his present condition, he will assist him – and only fight him when he has recovered. At the end though when he sees Shinkai praying at his mother’s grave, he turns away and leaves – a moving scene. This character was later to get his own film called “Blessed Virgin Killer” in 1974.

Wicked Priest: Breaking the Commandments (Gokuaku Bozu: Nomu Utsu Kau)
A.K.A.- Drinking, Gambling and Women
Director: Saito Buichi
Year: 1971
Production Company: Toei
Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

It’s not easy working your way through an entire brothel but Shinkai is doing a good job of it when a gang looking for someone interrupts him. Not taking kindly to this, he gets into a fight with them while dressed only in his loincloth and has to escape in such when the police show up. He finds shelter at an old mansion that has become home to many poor people. After retrieving his clothes and staff, he gets into a dice game with a female gambler, Ogin, who tries to cheat him – when she is unsuccessful the price she has to pay is her body – but after a night of revelry and joy she still steals all his money and escapes. Shinkai becomes friends with Wajima, the head of a transportation service, and when someone tries to muscle him aside with the assistance of the head of the police and tries to remove the folks from the mansion to build a wharf it is time for Shinkai to bring his staff to bear.

The bad guys hire three assassins to kill Shinkai – one a beautiful female who tries to seduce him with the end of a sharp blade – but he quickly disposes of them. Later he runs into Ogin again – now the mistress of the head of police – but one more session with Shinkai and she is ready to assist him in his plan to help Wajima. In the end of course he has to take on the gang by himself and he cuts a swathe of blood looking for justice. Smelling the blood on Shinkai, Ryutatsu tracks him down and the film ends with a fight that leaves both men near death.
All of these films are quite enjoyable if not up to the levels of either Zatoichi or Lone Wolf in either production values or entertainment value. They were produced by Toei, but apparently never quite caught on with the public.

My rating for the films: 7.0