Hello to all you fans of the martial arts movie world and others!! Hai!Karate comes back with a new review for you, a flick that caught my eye about 5 years ago. That movie comes from the great Toho Studios of Japan, known as Yagyu Secret Scrolls aka Yagyu Bugeicho!! (It's also known as Ninjitsu, which leads to some slight confusion. More on that later.) Released in 1957, this film features a powerhouse cast led by none other than the iconic Toshiro Mifune. Also starring Koji Tsuruta and Mariko Okada, this film is directed by the great Hiroshi Inagaki. The movie is remarkable for a number of reasons, mainly the face that we see Toshiro Mifune AS A NINJA folks. Mind. Blown. So let's get down to the nitty gritty on this picture...
Yagyu Secret Scrolls begins out in a plain with the looming sight of Mt. Fujiyama in the background. We see a samurai striding through cautiously before being attacked by another wearing a ronin-gasa who dispatches him easily. A woman and a young boy look on and prepare to join in but are stopped by a ninja in a tree who turns out to be Tasaburo(Mifune) who is in awe of the swordsman. His awe is justified as the man is actually Jubei Yagyu of the Yagyu swordmaster clan of the Tokugawa regime. After a brief confrontation, Tasaburo escapes in a burst of purple smoke. In the next few scenes, it is revealed that the "Martial Chronicles" are in danger. These three documents, held by three separate entities hold a vast array of information that could topple the empire and the Yagyus with it. One man, Fugetsu Yamada, wants the Chronicles to expose the Yagyus and save the nation from their machinations. Enter Tasaburo and his brother, Senshiro(Tsuruta) to execute the mission on his behalf to get the scrolls by any means.
From that point on, we are treated to a flurry of activity where each ninja goes on their mission -and wind up being involved with women that pose a bit of a risk to their goals and wind up putting them into conflict with each other. In Senshiro's case, he winds up being assigned to infiltrate the Yagyus, and Tasaburo gets to contact Princess Oki(Kyoko Kagawa).The two wind up in conflict, with Senshiro being opposed to Tasaburo's growing romance with the princess, choosing to focus on duty more. By the end though, both men have their eyes squarely set on the scrolls - and Jubei Yagyu.
Like I said before, Yagyu Secret Scrolls is an intriguing film. Seeing one of the most recognizable actors in Japanese film history as a ninja is slightly surprising, but is not totally unexpected. Mifune's martial skill was quite impressive throughout his career, thanks to the training he received from Yoshio Sugino, a master of the Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū which is one of the oldest forms of Japanese martial arts dating back to 1480 by some accounts. By studying this form, Mifune had more than enough knowledge to look the part. By this time he had already become well known in Japan for portraying samurai or ronin especially in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy where he played Miyamoto Musashi and Koji Tsuruta played his rival, Sasaki Kojiro. Mifune as Tasaburo brings all of the gruff charm you expect from the actor, with a little bit of tenderness as well. Tsuruta as Senshiro does display some cool and calculating moments here, and to see him and Mifune interact brings a stronger buttress to the film's plot. As for the ladies... well, the unfortunate part is that their characters are merely foils for the plot to move along. Princess Oki is confident but we see her being whittled down. Mariko Okada, who is highly regarded, is striking in her role but winds up taking a backseat to the action as well. I guess it was par for the course in those days with Inagaki.
A little earlier, I had touched upon the point of the film's title. The reason for that is, there's another film that was released that same year, by Toei Studios with the title of Ninjutsu Gozen-Jiai: Torawakamaru, The Koga Ninja. Toho may have wanted to avoid some confusion, hence the name of their films. That aside, Yagyu Secret Scrolls stands out because of the painstaking details with regards to the ninja. You see a great deal of their weaponry on display from the difference of shurikens to Tasaburo and Senshiro's different garb depending on the situation. Inagaki's film style also calls for a number of duels, and true to form, each is set up to provide some thrilling action. A tip of the hat goes to Jotaro Togami for his steely and ruthless portrayal of Jubei Yagyu, who comes off very Vader-like in his scenes. Overall, the film moves swiftly and packs a lot in without sacrificing too much. It's plain to see why Toho scrambled to make a sequel.(I'll get to that in the review for the next film.) For those who like their ninja action with a little less hokiness, Yagyu Secret Scrolls does the trick. You can grab a remastered DVD from the fine sites of Kurotokagi and JapaneseSamuraiDVD.
RATING: 3.5 OF 5 DRAGON PUNCHES