The Shogun's Vault (Gokinzo Yaburi, Toei, 1963) opens upon strange, seemingly cultic activities of men inflicting pain & pleasure upon one another, until one man is killed by suffocation for displeasing the group's leader. Soon we learn this is a prison population, who've developed their own obscene culture.
The director is Teruo Ishii, later famed for his softcore or "pinku" films. In what would otherwise be largely a family film, he is already imposing his personal sadomasochistic interests. But once this opening scene of macabre torture is done, the rest of the film settles down into something rather more serious & no longer perverse.
A new prisoner arrives, "Red Peony" Hanji, with an elaborate peony tattoo over his shoulder. Hanji is played by Hashizo Okawa, generally too pretty an actor to pass as underworld tough guy, but he's very convincing, having subdued his girlish looks in order to be an appropriately macho denizen of this grim world.
The oldest prisoner is "Smoke" Tomizo (Chiezo Kataoka). He has the unassuming respect of all the prisoners, & evidently a little authority. He interfers with what might've been Hanji's last fight, as Tomizo wants no trouble now that he's to be released at dawn, having served his five years.
When Smoke Tomizo is released, he's met almost at once by a police officer (Tetsuro Tamba), harrassing the ex-con with warnings not to live the thieving life that formerly brought him down. Tomizo claims every intent to tow the straight & narrow, having an opportunity to work as a candy vendor.
Kasuke has also just gotten out of prison. He's pallid & sickly, with a prison tattoo on his forehead. We know from the bizarre opening scene he's one loony bad-ass. He returns to a very bad yakuza godfather, Tatagoro (Toru Abe), as an enforcer or lieutenant.
Soon Red Peony Hanji is also released. He encounters an old friend, Kamiya a castle guard, through whom we learn that Hanji was once a samurai. Vassalage never suited him. He joined the yakuza underworld; & because he got a body-tattoo, even if he sometimes regrets his choice, he can never go back to who he was.
He & Smoke Tomizo strike up a friendship & one dawn set out on a small boat to fish in the lake. Smoke is very fatherly toward the young gambler, but does have ulterior motives. He got his nickname from his almost ninja-like abilities to get in & out of buildings undetected. And for those five years in prison, he kept himself sane by planning daily the perfect most audacious robbery -- of the vault in the Shogun's own Chiyoda Castle.
Had Hanji turned down the offer to assist, Smoke would've killed him, or died in the attempt. The revelation of the old thief's intent had these two men momentarily gazing at one another fiercely, as it could mean only one of them will return to shore. Then they burst out laughing, as Hadji would've been interested even if he'd had another choice.
From that moment on, this turns into a medieval heist flick, with atmosphieric night photography enhancing the best sequences. They two men arrange various components of the plan, which requires cohorts, evading the watchful police officer played by Tamba, & Hanji has to win the affection of a castle woman so that they'll have an inside confederate.
Oko is a concubine of the o-oku or women's quarter of the castle, but is no longer visited by His Excellency, & is in a vulnerable emotional state. Hanji manages to befriend her on her excursion outside the castle. He is able to seduce her by means of rape & a western kiss (such as was unknown in Japan the time).
This wasn't the film's best sequence to be sure, but Teruo Ishii has to leave his imprint on a few scenes. And the idea that someone as good looking as Hashizo Okawa could win over a girl's love even with inappropriate aggression isn't entirely impossible to believe.
Oko's led to believe Hanji seeks access to the castle for the sake of an illicit tryst. She will be disappointed when she learns he's actually a bold thief, but by the time she realizes it, he'll be genuinely soft on her after all.
Other players in the heist drama that unfolds includes Oko's sister Okumi, played Yukiji Asaoka, a well known singer as well as actress. She lives in the castle-town & is also interested in Hanji.
Hanji's old friend Kamiya as castle guard will be the hardest man to get past, & the method of gaining access to the castle is a critical part of the story. Then there is an array of bad-guys who catch wind of the plot & lay their own plans to rob the robbers.
The suspenseful heist unfolds within the castle grounds while everyone's attention is held by a fireworks display slated to run through much of early evening. Hanji & Tomizo will gain access to the castle vault & remove as many chests of gold as they can within a set period. They must not still be removing loot when the fireworks display ends.
We observe the carefully planned theft which requires a lot of time on the castle roof moving heavy chests one at a time to where they can be lowered to the ground & hidden in waste containers scheduled to be removed the next day by manure gatherers. It all goes off without a hitch, but Tomizo & Hanji didn't know a yakuza gang headed up by Kasuke is waiting for them.
As Tomizo & Hanji set off down a river in a boat weighted down with gold, the gate guard Kamiya about the same time realizes the vault was broken into & begins pursuit in boats.
[SPOILER ALERT!] Our thieving anti-heroes have yakuza in front of them, samurai behind them, as they pole their way down the river toward the lake. But when the yakuza & samurai begin to battle boat-to-boat, Hanji & Tomizo amidst darkness & chaos are able to slip away with their own loaded-down boat.
Despite the rousing success that greets them with the dawn, the boat is damaged & too weighted down. It sinks in the lake, over the deepest part. They'll have nothing for their efforts.
The harrassing police officer saw the boat go down, but has a vague admiration for the two thieves. Since they gained nothing, he does nothing about what he knows. [END SPOILER ALERT]
This is a delightful film. It has some good action scenes during the climax, but swordplay isn't the main point. Following the details of the heist gives it its suspense.
I first saw this film in the late 1970s on a big screen & it left a lingering strong impression, except I remembered it as having been in black & white because of all the shadowiness of events. When I was able to acquire it on dvd, however, I was surprised that it's in full color, though even so, it does have noirish cinematography.
Hashizo tended to star mainly in "sweet" family films reliant on his good looks & glorious smile. Shogun's Vault is one of the rarer serious jidai geki or period dramas, with the added novelty of being primarily a crime film in the samurai setting. It tells a good story & the actors are across the board first rate.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl