30 November 2017 | BrianDanaCamp
Excellent swordplay drama set in early Tokugawa era
FESTIVAL OF SWORDSMEN (1961), from the Toei Studio, is a historical drama in color and widescreen set in 1634 during the reign of Iemitsu Tokugawa, a time of relative peace in Japan. It opens with the announcement and preparations for a martial arts competition to be held in Edo before the Shogun and then follows the fates of various characters who decide to enter, culminating in the tournament itself. The lead character is Busshi Shirogoro (Ryutaro Otomo) of the Nen-Ryu school, who is first seen seeking lessons in Sendai from the dissipated Kamio Shume (Eiji Okada) of the Yagyu Clan, the official instructors for the Shogunate. When Busshi defeats Shume with one stroke, humiliating him for all time, it sets into motion a chain of events which leads to two women falling in love with Busshi and various characters seeking a match with him or trying to kill him outright.
Busshi heads toward Edo and in the course of his journey he meets a trio of ninja characters living in the mountains. His encounter with them leads to Hime or "Princess," the girl of the trio, disguising herself as a man to follow Busshi to Edo, accompanied by Saru or "Monkey," her agile sidekick, and entering the competition herself, as a judo expert. Shume also heads to Edo, to both participate in the competition and to kill Busshi. Meanwhile, Satomi (Keiko Okawa), the sister of Shume, whom he had abandoned in Sendai, is assaulted by another traveling swordsman on his way to Edo, Takeda Shinryuken, who takes her prisoner and makes her accompany him as his "wife." When Busshi intervenes and she escapes, another traveling swordsman, Iishino Shurinosuke (Tomisaburo Wakayama, of "Lone Wolf and Cub" fame), offers her protection while he, too, seeks a match with Busshi. Another group of characters, with smaller roles, is introduced as passengers on a ship to Edo, including a storyteller who goes from making false boasts about his own prowess to singing the praises of Busshi Shirogoro.
The film flits about from character to character, often leaving a scene in the middle before it's quite reached the point we wanted it to. There are lots of ellipses like this, but at some point it looks like a deliberate pattern set up to keep all the balls in play until everyone's converged on Edo for the tournament. Busshi and Hime eventually get much closer, while poor Satomi, clearly the noblest and purest character in the entire film, gets buffeted about from man to man, all while nursing a love for Busshi who'd rescued her from Takeda's first attempt to violate her. There are sufficient swordfights and matches sprinkled throughout the proceedings, usually in short bursts and all well staged, but they're incidental to the ebb and flow of the characters and relationships.
It's all beautifully shot on a mix of breathtaking natural locations, sprawling Toei backlots, and massive indoor studio recreations of outdoor settings. There wasn't a single scene that I didn't find compelling, either narratively or aesthetically. While films like this weren't considered artistic masterpieces on the order of those by Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Mizoguchi or Inagaki, they were still exemplary period films with fewer dramatic extremes and much more immersion in the everyday lives of characters from this era and how they lived and related to each other. While Busshi doesn't shatter behavioral norms and conventions the way Toshiro Mifune does in such films as Kurosawa's YOJIMBO or Kobayashi's SAMURAI REBELLION or the way Tatsuya Nakadai does in Okamoto's SWORD OF DOOM and Kobayashi's HARAKIRI, I got the sense that the flaws and failures of men like the ones in this film were more common among these kinds of characters in real life. Even the stalwart Busshi often seems incapable of living up to others' expectations of him. He disappointed me at times, but that makes him human, not a samurai legend. I believed him. (The only character here who breaks with convention is Hime, who dresses up as a man to enter the competition. The limited cast list on IMDb doesn't give the name of the actress who plays Hime.)
While this film has remained unnecessarily obscure, its director, Shigehiro Ozawa, is most famous in the U.S. and around the world for directing the STREET FIGHTER trilogy (1974), which made a household name of Sonny Chiba, who played the lethal karate fighter, Takuma "Terry" Tsurugi. The difference in tone and style between THE STREET FIGHTER and FESTIVAL OF SWORDSMEN is quite striking. No reason we can't have both.