Genre: HUGE (!!!) Ashikaga/Sengoku Era Samurai Epic
review in one breath
This enormous historical epic directed by Inagaki Hiroshi and starring Mifune Toshiro explores the land-hungry expansion of Takeda Shingen of Kai province and his ultimate battle with Uesugi Kenshin of Echigo. Set during the transition between the Ashikaga and Sengoku Eras, this is an action-packed, panoramic tale of strategy, battle and allegiance.
When this film was released in 1969, it was the largest film production ever undertaken by Japanese film studios and employed the largest cast of any film up to that time. To call this film ambitious would indeed be an understatement. It is directed by Inagaki Hiroshi (稲垣浩 / 1905-1980), a director whose name you may not recognize but whose work you surely will. During his career he directed 109 films, of which this current film is number 108. Most recognized in the West would likely be his Samurai Trilogy (1954, 1955, 1956), three full-length, sequential films telling the tale of legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi, wonderfully played by Mifune Toshiro (三船敏郎). Combined, the Trilogy amounts to a continuous five hour tale which is both riveting and beautiful. Definitely a classic.
More than a decade and twenty films later, Inagaki released Furin Kazan (風林火山), a similarly historical epic of immense scale, also starring Mifune in the lead role, with an unheard of running time for a single film of nearly three hours (165 minutes). As far as historical samurai films go, this will likely be the grandest, most expansive one you can find. In addition, the historical setting and structure of this narrative is truly fascinating when understood in its context.
The tale takes place in the mid 1500's, placing it squarely in the transition between the Ashikaga (1392-1568) and Sengoku (1568-1615) Eras. Of course, the "Ashikaga Era" is named after the ascension of Ashikaga (Takuji) to the Shogunate, a dynasty plagued by continuous provincial warfare. Ashikaga Clan rule lasted for eight Shoguns, but by the mid-1500's, both the shogunate and Imperial House were near collapse due to continuous war and revolt.
And by "war" is meant one provincial Clan (Daimyo) attacking another to possess its land and resources. To give you an example of the turbulence of the Ashikaga Era, consider the following. In 1467 there were 260 Daimyo throughout Japan. By 1600 there were slightly more than a dozen holding any significant power. This then was a time of great political advantage whereby stronger daimyo strategically swallowed up smaller or less war-skilled rival provinces.
The tale at hand is seen through the perspective of the (historical) Takeda Shingen (武田信玄 / 1521-1573), Daimyo of Kai (甲斐) Province (contemporary Yamanashi Prefecture, directly west of Tokyo) as he seeks to expand his control over neighboring diamyo. The film's climax involves his strategic battle with Uesugi Kenshin (上杉謙信 / 1530-1578), Daimyo of Echigo (越後) Province (contemporary Niigata Prefecture) whose territory lies on the Western coast of Japan. (For a visual representation of this era's strategic Daimyo placement, just take a quick peek here, particularly to the north and northwest.)
In terms of this film's narrative, it is historical fact that the military exploits of Takeda Shingen allowed the expansion of his rule from the eastern province of Kai through several Western provinces, until finally reaching the Westernmost, sea-side province of Echigo controlled by the renowned Uesugi Kenshin. It is also historical fact that Takeda and Uesugi faced off at Kawanakajima (川中島) in five seperate battles to decide control of Echigo.
AND it is historical fact that one of Takeda's most trusted Generals was Yamamoto Kansuke (山本勘助 / died 1561) whose strategic prowess proved invaluable to Takeda's military successes and is climactically remembered during the Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima between Takeda and Uesugi.
This film's main character is Yamamoto Kansuke, played by Mifune, and the tale intimately follows his personal pursuit of position and strategy in order to secure the increasingly expansive soveriegnty of the Takeda Daimyo.
It would be very true to say that for anyone familiar with this episode in Japanese history, this review could not possibly contain spoilers (since the film depicts historical outcomes). But since half the fun of these historical films is their dramatic educational value, I'll leave it up to you to learn how the (Fourth) Battle of Kawanakajima led by General Yamamoto Kansuke turned out.
Though well beyond the scope of this film, it should be no spoiler to state that it will be Oda Nobunaga (織田信長 / 1534-1582) rather than Takeda Shingen whose military conquests ultimately solidify Japan. To date, SaruDama has not yet posted anything significant regarding Oda despite his central role in this crucial transition in Japanese history. His personal military exploits are indeed legendary (well beyond the imaginations of Takeda or Uesugi). And yet in popular memory, he is (slightly) eclipsed by the successes of those serving under him.
Oda was the first one to seize Kyoto following the collapse of the Ashikaga Shogunate, and from there ran an impressively successful military campaign which ultimately ushered in a new Era of Japanese history and political stability. But that's a story for another day. There are, however, three points of relevance here to the current film.
First, at a critical juncture in Oda's military advancement, his two most formidable opponents were Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. Historians generally look back and deem Oda's luck as superior to his mililtary power, since both Takeda and Uesugi died in their prime (in events unrelated to the current film). Thus in terms of historical speculation, had either Takeda or Uesugi (or both) survived, Japan's historical timelime might have looked radically different.
Second, following the deaths of Takeda and Uesugi, Oda sought desperately to crush certain militant Buddhist monasteries (particularly the monks at Heizan and Hongwanji). Remarkably, he was never able to do so, due in great part to the support these monks had received from Oda's military rivals, first and foremost of which were both the Takeda and Uesugi daimyos. Consider how, in this film, both Takeda and Uesugi (and Yamamoto) are depicted as being inducted as Buddhist monks (by the Hongwanji sect) so as to spiritually devote themselves to greater ferocity in warfare. Thus if you look closely, you can see how prominently militant Buddhism plays a role in this film. And it was precisely this strain of Buddhism which Oda feared most and thus strove (albeit unsuccessfully) to destroy.
And Third, let's talk about General Yamamoto Kansuke (here played by Mifune). Popular recollection (and depiction) of Japanese history tends to take the path of greatest simplicity, a path which this current film rejects wholly. As I mentioned earlier, one of Oda's two greatest (yet unfaced adversaries) was Takeda himself. And this fim is completely about Takeda's primary general and strategist, Yamamoto.
But Oda himself had a primary General and military strategist by the name of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉). Hideyoshi originally joined the Oda clan at a very low position, but quickly gained rank through an uncanny resourcefulness and a keen knack for strategy, resulting in his becoming one of Oda's most trusted Generals. Following Oda's death, and in defiance to one of Oda's heirs (Oda Nobukatsu), Hideyoshi, whose military power was unrivalled, allianced himself with one of Oda Nobunaga's most long-standing, yet weaker, allies, Tokugawa Ieyasu. And thus, single-handedly, Hideyoshi ushered in the 250 year-long Tokugawa Era (1615-1867).
Thus contemplate for a moment the significance of this film's zeroing in on Yamamoto Kansuke. He begins as a ronin hired into a lowly rank within the Takeda forces, but through an almost demonic insight into human nature, strategy and military conquest, soon gains for himself the role of lead general and confidant of Takeda Shingen, who, were it not for his untimely death, would have been an unprecedented rival to the military advances of Oda Nobunaga.
You get the picture? Had one key historical event turned ever so slightly, Japanese school texts would have chapters, rather than footnotes, heralding Yamamoto Kansuke, whereas now Hideyoshi is bestowed the praise of centuries.
Yes, you should definitely see this, especially after reading the historical context I just gave you. (!!) The historical detail of the film is immaculate, even providing you with (accurate) dates, figures and places within the film. The story itself is wholly riveting as regards action, Japanese rank, strategy and sword play. And of course, Mifune ROCKS in this role, which he knows may be the most hyped of his career.
This is a long one (165 minutes), chocked full of Japanese hierarchy and strategy, but as such is perhaps the exemplar of epic (historical) samurai films by a director who has easily, decades prior, proven his mastery of the genre.
Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD with English subtitles. Available via all mainstream venues.
|Major accurate historical recollections here.||General war violence with a few particularly graphic scenes.||The need of Lady Biwa to sexually succumb to Takeda is thoroughly discussed and strategized.||This is a HUGE and memorable samurai saga, chocked full of factual history lessons.|