Some people cry in disgust at political corruption. Others laugh.
Available online. Approximately 138 minutes.
The year is 1582. General Akechi has betrayed his lord daimyo Oda Nobunaga. His forces kill both Oda and his eldest son Nobutada. A few days later, General Tokichiro arrives with 20,000 troops to supplement Lord Niwa’s 3,000. Led, ostensibly, by Oda’s third son Nobutaka, Tokichiro’s troops route Akechi’s 10,000 troops and kill Akechi. The bloodshed is over, but the fight is not. Did I mention that this is a comedy? Well, this is a comedy.
Lord Niwa meets with Lord Shibata, Oda’s Chief Vassal, and says that he must act as guardian to Nobutaka, whom they will put forth as successor to the Oda clan. They both fear the growing power and influence of Tokichiro, the goofball peasant general who killed Akechi. Niwa suggests that Shibata convene a conference in the Oda clan’s former capital town of Kiyosu, gathering as many vassals as possible to decide new daimyo and distribute land to the vassals while proclaiming his own position within the new order. Of course, Tokichiro’s advisor, Kanbei, warns him as much when telling him about the conference, saying that this is plot by Niwa and Shibata to block him from becoming Chief Vassal. Tokichiro, currently lording his status as clan hero over the rest of his own still impoverished and irritated family, scoffs at this; his ambitions are much higher than mere Chief Vassal.
When Shibata arrives at Kiyosu Castle, Niwa tells him to meet with Nobutaka before Tokichiro arrives. Shibata, however, first goes to see Lady Oichi, sister of the late Nobunaga. It is clear to…pretty much everyone that he harbors a huge crush on her, and while she does not really like him at all, she is perfectly willing to humor him in order to spite Tokichiro.
As Tokichiro arrives in town as a populist hero, Shibata and Niwa meet with Nobutaka, and insist that he become the new ruler of the Oda clan. They insist that he is more suitable than his “elder” brother, Nobukatsu, whom they consider to be a clown. Actually, Nobutaka is 20 days older than Nobukatsu; it is merely because he is an illegitimate son that he is third in line.
Tokichiro meets with Lady Oichi, under the impression that she would be grateful that he avenged her brother. However, she hates both Tokichiro and her brother. Her brother had married her off to a member of another clan in order to prevent an inter-clan war, only to start one up again twelve years earlier. Her brother ordered Tokichiro to kill both her husband and her young son. Tokichiro is deeply shocked and genuinely bewildered that she still holds a grudge against him after all this time for simply following orders, but she would rather the entire Oda clan be destroyed than to grant Tokichiro any happiness.
With Nobutaka allied with Shibata, Tokichiro finds little choice but to ally with Nobukatsu. He almost immediately has some misgivings about this choice, as Nobukatsu turns out to be a complete idiot. However, Tokichiro claims that he and the other vassals could properly “guide” him, which another vassal suspects means that Tokichiro wants to use Nobukatsu as a puppet.
One important vassal, Lord Takigawa, had been fighting elsewhere and still had not arrived by the second day, so the conference has been postponed. In the meantime, Shibata and Niwa start trotting out Nobutaka as if he has already been picked as clan leader. Tokichiro tries to do the same, but Nobukatsu is too much of a clown to make it work. Even with this failure, Tokichiro’s popularity means that he has more vassals on his side than Shibata does.
After some back and forth between the two sides attempting to ally themselves with other Oda family members, Lord Niwa decides to separate Tokichiro from his entourage by limiting the number of retainers in the conference. He reasons that this will save time, which will prevent rival clans from taking advantage of this moment of certainty. Tokichiro, of course, immediately suspects that the two of them are trying to isolate him, and asks why they would summon all of the retainers in the first place if only to involve the senior vassals. They deflect the question, but when Tokichiro then counters that the need for a swift conference means that they should replace a still absent Takigawa with another vassal, Shibita gets violent with him. This moment of chaos gets interrupted by Nobukane, one of Oda’s estranged younger brothers, who may or may not be allied with Tokichiro. He tells them to hurry up with the conference, so Niwa says that they will wait one more day for Takigawa, and select someone else to take part in the conference regardless. They settle on Lord Ikeda for senior vassal, mostly because he is hopelessly corrupt, with each side trying to bribe him.
Loosely based on one of the most pivotal events in Japanese political history, this movie could have been a dry or angry drama. The politics are dirty, with almost everyone openly acknowledging that the real issue is whether Shibata or Tokichiro will be the puppetmaster. While this is hardly a democracy, what process exists is highly corrupted, with possible allegories to the current state of things. I cannot say whether this movie was “inspired” by the retaking of the Japanese government by Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party in 2012 after three measly years of Democratic rule, but it could have been.
Instead of a drama, the movie plays the whole thing like a gleefully cynical farce. Shibata is an awkward pent-up ball of repressed aggression and Tokichiro is a lively low-class goof who enlists his wife in his schemes. Much of the movie’s humor comes from poking fun at their bitter rivalry and their absurd means to upstage each other, though the overly buttoned up Nobutaka and the hopelessly stupid Nobukatsu get some jokes sent their way as well.
The music is brazenly Western and anachronistic, with one noticeably out of place motif coming back later in the film in a hilariously altered form, although I noticed the difference only upon a second viewing. I suppose that, when the story starts to slow down towards the end, the movie slowly drops the humor and hints at the violence to come beyond the scope of the movie. Even with that, though, the movie is hilariously funny.
The movie can comfortably get away with telling the story this way, since it is such a well-known story in Japan and told more seriously before. It also allows the movie to skip over or gloss over certain details. The movie says very little about why Akechi rebelled. It says pretty much nothing about how a coarse peasant like Tokichiro gained so much power or how his rivalry with Shibata began. It provides even less information about Lady Oichi’s backstory than I provided above. And, perhaps most importantly, the movie’s decision to take place almost completely within the timeframe of the conference prevents it from exploring the consequences of its outcome aside from some subtle and less subtle hints within the dialog. Those in the know will get the hints. And for those who don’t, there is always the internet. I’ll just say that there is an attempt to invade China and Korea gets pulled in…violently against its will. While some things get hammered home in later dialog, there are some cruel ironies woven within the narrative that do not get spelled out. The audience knows.
So…I have not much else to say here. If you can find it, check it out.
WTF ASIA 111: Devils on the Doorstep (China: 2000, approx. 138 minutes)
Erm…well, it had been available online…uh…
WTF ASIA 112: The Handmaiden (South Korea: 2016, approx. 145 minutes)