8 December 2019 | topitimo-829-270459
Directed by Mifune
World famous actor Mifune Toshiro sat on the director's chair only once during his 50 year career in the film industry. "Gojuman-nin no isan" (Legacy of the 500,000, 1963) was clearly something he felt passionate about, since he also produced the film. His directorial touch is nothing out of the ordinary, but he is also honest about his inexperience in directing: in the opening credits, after the director, a credit is given to directing assistant/consultant.
The screenplay is by frequent Kurosawa collaborator Kikushima Ryuzo, who wrote "Tengoku to jigoku" (High and Low, 1963) for Kurosawa and Mifune that very same year. The plot of the picture is a simple one, and also something that you could have imagined as a Kurosawa film. Mifune plays Matsuo Takeichi, a former soldier who in the final days of the war in Philippines, hid a large amount of Japanese gold under ground. In the present moment, he has become a small-time businessman who lives a quiet and economical life. Nakadai Tatsuya, made to look older than he was, plays an evil industrialist who knows that Mifune is the only one who knows where the gold coins are. So after our hero refuses to help him, Nakadai has him kidnapped, and put on a boat with his Nakadai's brother (Mihashi Tatsuya) and a team, that are travelling to collect the treasure.
So it looks like we have the ingredients for an entertaining treasure hunt, maybe even something like "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1966). But Mifune also carries other ambitions. His character is burdened by the loss of so many Japanese people during the war. He feels that his captors are part of a younger generation, who lack proper respect, since they do not remember how hard it was for the older generations. The preachy elements are constantly watering down, what could have been an electric adventure. I am not saying that the tragedy of war should not be depicted in Japanese movies, but this is not the right kind of narrative for it, this is no "Ningen no joken" (Human Condition, 1961). Also it is troubling, that this film likes to represent the war as a tragedy, that happened to Japan, and not a tragedy, that Japan caused. Mifune is haunted by the deaths of his countrymen, not by the deaths caused by them. The ideology being so visible prevents this film for being a product to export to other markets, since people from other countries would probably frown upon this patriotism.
The characters are very black and white, which is a typical feature in the directing debuts of famous actors. Look at Burt Lancaster's "The Kentuckian" (1955) or John Wayne's "Alamo" (1960) for further examples. Mifune is thoroughly a noble Japanese ideal citizen, and the villains are both evil and dumb. The contrast is super boring. Another huge missed opportunity is that although he is present in the beginning, Nakadai does not actually go with them on the journey! He is in the film very briefly, possibly because the actor was in such high demand at the time. The other villains aren't as interesting.
I liked the fact that this was shot on location in the Philippines. It does not feel like a studio picture. For most of the film, the potential of the narrative is somewhat visible, though the screenplay should have been rewritten once more. The last shot of the film is easily the best, and shows directorial ambition, that Mifune otherwise lacks. He definitely enjoys playing such a perfect hero, and for most of the time, it is also entertaining to watch.
It's an okay effort, nothing to be embarrassed about, but also nothing that makes you wish there had been further directorial works by the star.