22 November 2017 | BrianDanaCamp
The early rise to power of a key figure in Japan's unification
LUCKY ADVENTURER ODA NOBUNAGA (1959) is a lively samurai film dramatizing a pivotal turning point in the life and career of Nobunaga Oda, who figured prominently in efforts to unify the warring states of Japan under a central ruler in the late 16th century. The first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa, was one of Oda's protégés. Oda (Kinnosuke Nakamura) is first seen as a reckless youth who scorns protocol and is indifferent to public gossip. After the death of his father, head of the Oda clan, he continues to rely much too closely on the wise counsel and decision-making of his adviser/mentor, Hirodate (Ryunosuke Tsukigata). When Hirodate commits seppuku, hoping such a drastic act will force Oda to mature and accept his responsibilities, Oda finally steps up to the plate and assumes leadership of the clan, opting to resist attempts by the Imagawa clan to annex the Oda region, Owari.
Most depictions of Nobunaga Oda that I've seen in Japanese popular culture tend to portray him as a villain—or even a demon, as seen in numerous anime renditions. He was indeed known for the brutal tactics employed in his rise to power. There are hints of madness in this film, as when Oda laughs maniacally after making key pronouncements, and signs of fierce obsession in his behavior, but for the most part he is shown as heroic and loyal, a man of the people who commands the full devotion of his loving wife, whose father is a rival daimyo and significant opponent of Oda, and all of his people, including his 4000-man army and the farmers and workers in the surrounding region.
It all culminates in Oda's bold and risky strategy of marching out and engaging an approaching enemy that's ten times larger than his army, using the terrain and weather to his advantage and catching the overconfident Imagawa armies when they've dropped their guard and stopped to rest and drink with the local farmers who have conveniently brought sake to the tired, overheated soldiers. It's quite a grand finale.
Kinnosuke Nakamura gives a wild-eyed and energetic performance, perfectly capturing the volatile moods of this complex personality, from moments of joy and exhilaration to unrestrained expressions of grief, including one remarkable segment showing him wading into a river, crying and screaming lamentations after the death of Hirodate, with the camera in a boat tracking him in medium close shot. Hiroko Sakuramachi plays Oda's dutiful wife, Princess O-no, who turns against her own father to stand with her husband in his hour of need. She is initially shocked at his transformation following the death of Hirodate and demands that he "bring me back my husband," but she soon realizes the life-changing implications involved and welcomes her role in fulfilling this destiny. Even though it was an arranged marriage with a political purpose in mind, it's clear the two love and have deep affection for each other. He will not be able to achieve his goals without her.
As was typical of Toei historical films in the 1950s and early '60s, the production values are quite impressive, with beautiful color widescreen photography and imaginative use of standing sets, elaborate costumes, and breathtaking locations. There are hundreds of extras on hand, many on horseback, in the scenes of marching armies, so it's obvious there was an ample budget. There are a few short cuts in the battle scene, however, including close shots of Oda filmed against a backdrop pretending to ride his horse into battle when it's obvious he's not on a horse at all, but this is a small quibble. After reading the Nobunaga Oda entry in Wikipedia, it would seem to me that most of the events depicted in the film actually happened, although not all in 1560, the year in which this film is set.
I had never heard of this film before I gained access to a viewing copy and I continue to marvel at the large number of exemplary Japanese historical films from the 1950s and '60s that never made it to the U.S. through official distribution channels and are waiting to be discovered. As a student of Japanese history, I welcome any dramatizations of key historical figures and incidents that help me to visualize these people and events.