Film Review: Goyokin (1969)

The con artist Oriha (Ruriko Asaoka)
The con artist Oriha (Ruriko Asaoka)
Magobei (Tatsuya Nakadai) and Tatewaki (Tetsurô Tanba) fight during their spectacular climactic duel in the snow
Magobei (Tatsuya Nakadai) and Tatewaki (Tetsurô Tanba) fight during their spectacular climactic duel in the snow

Goyokin is a samurai film about honour. Opening voice-over narration explains that the title refers to a payment of gold delivered as a tax to the Shogunate from the people of Japan. Early in the film we see an attractive young lady, Oriha (Ruriko Asaoka), return from a supply run to a fishing village by the side of an icy river, which is seemingly deserted. Crows inhabit the inside of the place, and fly around her, and we get a fairly creepy and dreamlike sequence that is designed to make the audience feel unsettled. It is a certainly reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The girl is searching for her father and mother, and eventually finds a corpse hidden under some straw. It is uncertain if this is real or imagined, however, as it is a fleeting glimpse and not mentioned again in the film. The young woman then flees the village claiming that a famous curse has struck as thirty fishermen and women have mysteriously vanished.

The opening is odd, but serves an important purpose. It makes the viewer want to learn more about what happened. Hearing about the curse, we are forced to wonder what forces are at play.

Next a band of armed men try to kill a bearded samurai, Magobei Wakizaka played by Tatsuya Nakadai, who featured in Akira Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo (as the gun-toting baddie), and would go on to star in the later Kurosawa films Kagemusha and Ran. Magobei wears a large conical bamboo hat, and often his eyes are only just seen from underneath the brim, a bit like Clint Eastwood in some Westerns. Magobei is a deadly serious man who doesn’t once crack a smile through this film. He is a downbeat masterless samurai plagued by his past. Magobei proves himself to be a skilled swordsman from the start, when he single-handedly kills multiple assailants. The most stylistic of these comes when facing the camera, Magobei thrusts his katana behind him, like he is sheathing his weapon, but instead he kills the final man sent to kill him. Nakadai sheaves his sword in dramatic and methodical fashion many times in Goyokin.

Magobei’s backstory is told in flashback. Three years prior, he worked as a mounted samurai guard for his brother-in-law and childhood friend, the chamberlain of the Sakai clan, Rokugo Tatewaki (Tetsurô Tanba, who played James Bond’s Japanese ally Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice). The chamberlain was the chief organiser of things like the finances of a clan. Due to economic shortfalls during a poor harvest, the Shogunate increased taxes on the people. This financially crippled the Sakai clan, and as chamberlain Tatewakiorganised to swindle a shipment of gold bars being sailed from a mine across to the capital in Edo. This payment is the goyokin, of course, and Tatewaki had the ship forced onto some rocks near a fishing village, where his men killed the crew and stole the gold, and then slaughtered all of the thirty innocent villagers who witnessed the crime. Then they hid the bodies or had crows eat them (perhaps – it is unclear), then fostered the rumour that the villagers disappeared mysteriously. Magobei was morally outraged and refused to take part in the slaughter, but when a wounded villager attacked him he was forced to defend himself, and killed the man. Tatewaki used this against Magobei, as he was now inadvertently complicit in the crimes. Out of disgust, Magobei left the Sakai clan, and three years on he is basically dead inside, from guilt at his lack of honourable or heroic action in the past.

Magobei in his conical hat
Magobei in his conical hat

To complicate matters, Magobei was romantically involved with Tatewaki’ssister, Shino (Yôko Tsukasa). Tatewakitries to do the honourable thing and let his old friend live by sending his sister to meet him. He wants Magobei to turn a blind eye again, but he knows that if he lets Magobei live, the honourable samurai will always try to intervene if the clan tries to steal the Goyokin and wipe out the inhabitants of the fishing village once again. Magobei knows that because Tatewaki has sent men after him early in the film that he is planning to massacre villagers again under the cover of the curse, and that the chamberlain is pre-emptively striking the man who might try to stop him.

Magobei rejects the woman he loves (or loved) when Shino arrives by palanquin to see him. Shino tries to get him to forget the past and run away with her, essentially. However Magobei can’t let Tatewaki’s crimes go unpunished, especially because the young girl Orihafrom the start of the film has had to turn to being a con artist to make a living, since her family and normal way of life was wiped out. When she is caught cheating at dice, Magobei saves her from being raped and killed. As thanks Orihaoffers her body to him, but the noble ronin declines. She then slaps him in the face, as she is a gutsy person also seeking revenge for the crimes of Tatewaki and his men, and wants the assistance of the samurai in her endeavours at any cost.

The con artist Oriha (Ruriko Asaoka)
The con artist Oriha (Ruriko Asaoka)

The climax of Goyokin features a mesmerising swordfight between Magobei and Tatewaki in the snow, which includes some novel bits of business I think. At one point Magobei is buried in the snow and digs himself out with his hands, and this leaves him physically disabled to fight for some time due to the cold. When he is able to continue fighting, both he and his enemy constantly breath hot air onto their hands to bring feeling back into their fingers, lest the cold affect their dexterity and ability to fight. I had never seen a snowy setting for a samurai duel, but the ending to Goyokin was pleasantly pictorial.

Overall I found this to be a fairly entertaining samurai film. It is certainly thematically concerned with the idea of honour, and in particular Nakadai provides a captivating central performance as a moody and honourable samurai, while Asaoka gives a feisty performance as the charming female con artist Oriha.

Goyokin screened as part of ACMI’s Samurai Cinema season.

3.5 blergs
3.5 blergs
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