Another movie taking place a long time ago about a fighter out for revenge and stealing stuff.
It is the Spring of 1722 in Edo. A group of masked men from the Akatsuki Gang sneak into a…sake…place, owned by a guy named Omiya. They attack everyone inside. They take as much money as they can find, with their leader rather smug about having gotten there before someone named Kumogiri.
Well, here come the cops. They burst into the sake place and…erm…attack everyone inside.
Three of Akatsuki’s men had found the bulk of the money and put it on a boat. They try to sneak away, only to get ambushed by…two other masked men. They are Lieutenant Kichigoro and Rokunosuke of the Kumogiri Gang. They are upset that this group of thieves had stolen the money that they had spent three years planning to steal. Kichigoro yell at the police to go faster and not let Akatsuki’s men get away…while they themselves get away.
The big cop boss manages to corner Akatsuki himself and…kills him after a short fight. Akatsuki’s second in command clumsily sneaks away.
Kichigoro and Rokunosuke make their way down the river to another boat, where Kumogiri has been waiting. Kichigoro tells him that everything went according to his plan. Kumogiri asks about Hoshiuemon. Oh, was that the leader’s name? Well, in any case Kichigoro tells him that Hoshiuemon is like a rat in a trap, and he is paying for having cheated them.
The cops are interrogating this guy quite angrily when the big boss comes in. He…apologizes for the rudeness and has his men leave the guy alone. He tells them that the man used to be a samurai, and there is no need to check his background or that of anyone else here.
Okay, so the cops are actually samurai from the Bureau of Arson and Theft, or the Bureau. I am still calling them the cops.
Back at the Bureau’s headquarters, the Big Cop Boss, Abe, talks to an underling, Tobei, about one of the men that they had captured, Komadera Rikichi. The Bureau has been trying to bring down Kumogiri’s gang, and Komadera claims to be able to identify the gang’s members. Abe suggests that Komadera be granted clemency in return for acting as bait. Tobei says that Kumogiri has been able to exploit their every mistake like some kind of demon. Abe scoffs. Kumogiri is human, just like them. Behind every act of supposed magic is a secret.
And here is Chiyo, a member of Kumogiri’s gang, right before she has sex with a merchant named Lord Matsuya…that goes on for a little bit. Ahem…
After that, Chiyo and Lord Matsuya return to an inn, where another Kumogiri member named Denjiro is working undercover.
As Chiyo goes upstairs to change, Lord Matsuya meets up with Koshuya, Chiyo’s…erm…handler…who had introduced him to Chiyo. Wait…is that Koshuya actually Kichigoro? Huh…Matsuya admits that he had thought of Chiyo as just a one-time thing, but has grown infatuated after six meetings. “Koshuya” says that he had only set them up because Matsuya is such a valued client. A…client for…anyways. Koshuya also tells Matsuya that Chiyo is from a noble family. Apparently, Matsuya had not known that, and is very curious.
Upstairs, Denjiro gets super horny for Chiyo. She lets him go…a bit farther than one might expect before she pokes him in the head with a hairpin. Chiyo reminds him that she does not do this for fun; it is part of the job. Denjiro says that he was only joking. Really? Whether or not Chiyo believes him, she backhands him to the floor and threatens to tell the boss.
Anyways, Koshuya tells Matsuya that Chiyo is the widow of a court noble in Kyoto. Since she was the second wife, his relatives took the house when he passed. Such things happen, says Matsuya, even to good women such as her. Since she had no money or family, continues Koshuya, he took her in, as she used to be a client. Matsuya reveals that Chiyo had asked him to take care of her. Koshuya is unsure about that; isn’t Matsuya only here on a trip? For love, Matsuya says, this is no trouble. He will take Chiyo with him to Nagoya.
Matsuya leaves on a palanquin while Chiyo leaves by boat with another Kumogiri member named Jihei. That leaves Denjiro to sulk by himself back at the inn. Oh, wait, Rokunosuke is there to warn Denjiro against getting too hot for her. He observes Chiyo leaving on the boat and notices someone hiding in the front.
Rokunosuke runs out and follows Chiyo on another boat. He calls out for her, and Chiyo tells Jihei to wait. After Rokunosuke catches up to them, he and Jihei confront the knife-wielding stowaway. There is a bit of a struggle before Chiyo has had enough, and stabs the guy to death. Didn’t even get to know who he was.
Oops. Rokunosuke reminds her that the boss told them not to kill people before a job. But he volunteers to claim the kill and drops the guy into the river. Chiyo doesn’t really care. In any case, she says that Jihei’s boat is now cursed and will go the rest of the way with Rokunosuke.
At a cemetery, Kumojiri gang member Subashiri meets up with Tsuji Kuranosuke, the man who was questioned after the sake place attack. Tsuji tells Subashiri that Shojumaru, the successor of the Owari clan, will have his coming-of-age ceremony in three months. Tsuji asks Subashiri to tell “him” that he would like to see “him” there.
Tsuji is leaving when Subashiri catches up to him with his spare sandals, which he had apparently forgot at the gravesite. Tsuji thanks him and continues walking. I am not sure what the significance of that was, but a man observes Tsuji as he leaves. Is this mystery man…the boss? Kumogiri?
Rokunosuke and Chiyo are still on the boat as the evening comes. Rokunosuke says that the boss worries about her and wants her to be patient. She will be going to Owari soon and will definitely see the boss there. Then it starts to rain, so the two hide underneath a…something or other. It is terrible coverage from the rain, but it doesn’t really matter as they start having sex…okay.
Four cops rush through the inn, looking for members of Kumogiri’s. They are fast and perhaps a little clumsy. Holy crap, that guy almost killed his colleague. Also, there is no one there.
Kichigoro meets up with Boss Kumogiri. Apparently, someone named Okuda had warned them that the Bureau was coming, allowing them to slip away. Kumogiri tells Kichigoro to give Okuda payment and tell him to lie low. As for Rokunosuke’s punishment for killing that guy, Kumogiri will think on it. In the meantime, he will go to the temple at Horinouchi to pray for better luck.
Kumojiri then asks about their next target, Musashiya. Kichigoro says that he had gone there earlier today, posing as Koshu the merchant. Gang members Shichimatsu and Kamezo were also there under cover.
Kichigoro met with Musashiya’s head maid, Matsu…who is…also in Kumogiri’s gang? How the heck do they slip so many people into a single…anyways, she told him that she has the keys to the safe, which is under the altar.
One of the guys from the Bureau goes to the house where his mistress Maki lives. He wants to have sex, but Kichigoro is there. Kichigoro thanks him for warning them that the Bureau was coming, and gives him a few gold taels. Oh, so this must be Okuda. Kichigoro tells Okuda to be wary of his colleagues, but Okuda dismisses that, saying that he is constantly stuck doing paperwork despite being a seasoned veteran while greenhorns like Abe and Tobei get all the glory. Anyways, Kichigoro tells Okuda about the trip to the temple and leaves…so that Okuda can have sex with Maki.
Night arrives and the cops are waiting for Kumogiri at the temple. Huh…Koshuya probably should not have told Okuda that, huh. Well, while they are waiting for him, Matsu and others have tied up the rest of Musahiya’s staff.
After triggering a perhaps unnecessarily neat little mechanism that moves the altar, the gang accesses the safe and opens it. There are maybe three or four boxes of gold, and they take them all.
Oh, wait. Was Kumogiri here the whole time? Was he even at the temple? Huh. Anyways, he notices one of the staff members looking right at him. Kichigoro tells him that that is Musashiya’s masseur and he is blind.
Kumogiri wants the gang to move out, but Matsu tells him that she left behind her late mother’s comb box. Kumogiri tells her to forget it. Matsu insists that no one has seen her face and that she can make an excuse if she is caught. Well, maybe no one saw her face, but they can hear her voice right now. Whatever. Kumogiri tells her not to slip up. She goes back for the comb box and the rest of them head out.
I guess that Matsu found the comb box, but she finds herself tempted by what looks like a jewelry box on top of a cupboard. She tries to open it. She tries to move it. And she…falls through the floor?
The next morning, Abe reveals that Okuda had been leaking information to Kumogiri’s gang. Instead of killing him, though, he will have Okuda live the rest of his life in disgrace. Oh, also, Kumogiri’s gang had apparently kidnapped Maki and destroyed her house. Subashiri had sent them a note, offering to exchange Maki for Matsu. Oh, so they found Matsu and arrested her, huh?
The exchange is to take place at the Ogiyu public baths. And…oh, I don’t know if they were meant to end up in the same private bath, but there is a good thirty-second stretch where I braced for the moment that they start stab stab stabbing each other. They don’t, however, and they get called outside to their corresponding palanquins. The two parties leave…well, not in peace, but without violence. All that for the mistress of a corrupt and disgraced former employee, huh. Well, a civilian is a civilian, I guess.
Oh, Abe and Kumogiri are both there and lock eyes for a little bit. Do they know who each other is? Who knows?
Big meeting of the Kumogiri gang. Chiyo and Rokunosuke are a little late to arrive because…ahem…but Kichigoro tells Kumogiri that Chiyo has turned Lord Matsuda into her puppet. Komogiri is glad to hear that. So, they begin. Denjiro stands guard outside and everyone takes a drink…except for Matsu, whom I guess is under probation for getting herself arrested. Kumogiri claims that he will overlook her blunder, though. She insists that she is prepared for her punishment, but Kumogiri tells her that she can make up for it on the next job…I am not sure if that was meant to sound ominous, but that seems to have scared Matsu. Moving on.
Kumogiri says that that there is a 1000-ryo bounty out for him. No matter how much money he steals, he is almost certain that he will be caught, hanged from a tree, and then forgotten to history. The gang has been lucky to have been able to steal over the past ten years; there should be enough money for each of them to live out the rest of their lives in comfort. Thus, Kumogiri has decided that the next job in Owari-Nagoya will be the last. No more theft. He knows, however, that the world will not believe that they will stop for good; they will still cower in fear, and the name Kumogiri will still ring in the air. Though Denjiro seems to leave on a boat in resentment, no one in the meeting has any objections to this. Kumogiri thanks them. That is a pretty neat trick: to announce not just your last job, but everyone’s last job. He’s laying them all off and they are okay with it. At least they get a nice severance package to get them through unemployment. Also, they burn the hideout.
Abe has arranged for a secret meeting with Musashiya’s masseur. He offers information about Kumogiri’s real identity. He wants not money, but something else.
Ten years ago, the man says, the Owari clan suffered a sudden misfortune. The bookkeeper, Tsuji Kuranosuke (!) was caught embezzling money, but refused to admit it. For shameless conduct unbecoming a samurai, Owari Tsugutomo ordered him take his own life through harakiri. Additionally, Tsuji’s family line was to be terminated and his entire family would be put to death. However, Kuranosuke and his younger brother Iori rebelled. They broke through the siege and fled.
So, Kumogiri is really Tsuji Iori, eh? Does this mean that this job against the Owari is personal? But Lord Matsuda is not directly part of the Owari clan, is he?
Eight men were selected to track down the Tsuji brothers. The masseur, then Captain Tomizuka Sajuro, was one of them. They eventually caught up to the brothers, but the Tsuji brothers killed them and fled again.
Sajuro was knocked out, but he might as well have killed himself if he had returned to the clan in such a humiliated state. So, he…took two heads of his dead comrades and pretended that they were the Tsuji brothers. He presented them to his lord, who decided that this piece of embarrassment would be better kept secret. The lord slashed at Sajuro. I am not sure if Sajuro fell off the cliff behind him or jumped, but it was a pretty high fall.
Wow. So, even after ten years, Sajuro could recognize Iori simply by voice. So, what does Sajuro want? Abe has an idea, but his condition is still the same: Kumogiri’s head.
Abe looks through the Owari Clan Judicial Records of Hearings and Punishment. He finds out…something.
Abe goes to Edo Castle. Despite his failures in the Omiya and Musashiya cases, his Big Big Boss (is this the Shogun?) believes that his dedication to the Kumogiri investigation is worthy of the highest praise. Abe says that Kumogiri is almost as good as caught, as he has an informant who can identify him. The big big boss is glad to hear that, but he also calls Abe a pain in the ass. The big big boss is responsible for the welfare of the entire country, but Abe is dragging him into some mess just to catch one bandit. I am not sure how serious he is regarding that, since he laughs immediately afterwards, but Abe apologizes anyways.
Abe returns to the Bureau Headquarters to talk with an underling named Takase about the Nagoya-Owari investigation. They still don’t know where and when Kumogiri will make his move, but they must absolutely stop him this time. That may involve combat. An odd warning, as Takase was one of the most aggressive combatants during the Omiya fight. Takase declares that he is prepared; that their opponents are the most villainous gang in the country. Abe asks him if that means that those who enforce the law are all righteous and just. As an…example. Abe says that Takase is accused of a crime that he didn’t commit. Wait…WHAT? Okay, so Takase is hypothetically ordered to kill himself, his family lineage is abolished, his relatives executed, and the woman he loves is taken from him. What would Takase do? Takase struggles to come up with an answer. Abe asks if a wronged man defies the law to avenge himself and his family, to do his duty as a man, would Takase be willing to be the one to take him down? Takase says nothing. Abe excuses him, and tells him to come back alive.
Well, that is a bit of a twist, isn’t it?
The title Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron is a…choice. The Japanese title is Kumokiri Nizaemon. After the character in the film. The film is based on the historical novel Kumokiri Nizaemon by Shōtarō Ikenami. IMDB claims that there were short films made in 1912 and 1914 with that same name, but I have no idea about either of those. I have no idea about the novel either, so I am just going by the movie.
I did not really mention this in the synopsis, but there is quite a bit of female nudity in the first section of this movie. Quite a bit. From the rather low-culture-sounding English title to the introduction full of casual boobage and the gleeful violence, it could be quite understandable to wonder how the heck this movie would not get wrapped up in 100 minutes. Like, this is no Akira Kurosawa samurai epic, but a dirty exploitation flick.
And, yet…it works. There is a sense of…growth, I guess. As the story and characters tend to evolve, the movie itself does as well. That bathhouse scene is like the last hurrah for naked women, and even subsequent moments where there could be some of that, there isn’t. And the violence, while still occasionally bringing out the blood fountains, seems to revel in the horrific chaos less and less. As the movie goes along and adds context to its seemingly exploitative beginnings, it starts to justify its epic length. Or…maybe that is just me looking for something that is not there. Certainly, director Gosha Hideo was not done with playing in the dirt, if his 80s films are anything to go by. In terms of this specific movie, though, it appears to sort of mirror some of the characters themselves. They have one identity, but then they shed it to either assume another identity or to reveal their true selves.
The movie starts out with what seems like the climax to another movie. A gang of bad guys attack a place to steal the money, but the Bureau of good guys break it up. Yet, it turns out that there is ANOTHER group of bad guys who steal the money from the first group of bad guys. The cruel depravity that the Akatsuki Gang displayed during the first scene made me expect more of that with the Kumogiri Gang. Yet, they are different. Instead of just barging in, they have “inside men” throughout various communities just waiting to be activated to take part in robberies, which they would prefer to be done quietly and deliberately. Additionally, Kumogiri tries to have killings kept to a minimum, especially right before a job. They also seem to treat Okuda with respect until…well, they have to kidnap Maki to get Matsu back. But I either failed to pick up on the ways that they are different from the Akatsuki gang or dismissed them until the big meeting.
For certain, there are individuals within Kumogiri’s gang who exhibit less than professional behavior. Denjiro is a creepy letch. Matsu “forgets” her mother’s comb box and lets her greed get the better of her. And then there is yet another gang member who is introduced only to accidentally throw a wrench into the plans. Overall, though, the Kumogiri gang is not just professional, but deeply loyal, both to Kumogiri and to each other. Pretty much all of the statements said by the gang members to each other that I had figured were just criminal doublespeak turned out to be genuine. They will look out for each other, follow orders, honor their promises, and protect each other with their lives. Honor among thieves…in a Japanese movie in the 1970s? I find it to be simultaneously quaint and refreshing.
The reveal of Kumogiri’s tragic backstory made it seem that he was targeting Lord Matsuda as part of a larger plot to get back at the Owari clan. But it turns out that Nagoya is just a place of wealthy people. The robbery is not a stepping stone to something else, but a statement. Kumogiri no longer thinks of himself as Tsuji Iori, but as a phantom. Kumogiri Nizaemon is a mystery, hiding in the shadows, he might as well not even exist. His vengeance is not against any clan or man, but at the powerful of society. The society that allows that man and that clan to get away with such an injustice. He takes not people’s lives, but the money that they have devoted their lives to getting. The money that they spend so frivolously. The money that they consider more important than the lives of others. Killing them would be too easy. Instead, he will leave them alive, but with their livelihood gone and their trust shattered.
While Kumogiri and the members of his gang are fully capable of doling out deadly violence, they prefer the long game; working a mark for maybe months, inserting several operatives into that person’s life and business, striking quietly, and disappearing suddenly. Granted, it does not always work out that way, but that is the ideal. Instead of being terrorized over one night, the marks fall victim to a deep violation, betrayed by those whom they either trusted or did not really take a moment to notice. They would perhaps be unsure about their own judgement and unsure about their standing in the society.
The beginning of the movie with the decoy gang sets up the movie to be one of good guys vs. bad guys. The samurai squadron vs. bandits. Yet, just as the bandits are shown to be more complex, the society that they are stealing from is not shown particularly nicely. Even before the reveal of Kumogiri’s backstory, we get Chiyo’s brush with injustice. Whether the story told to Lord Matsuda is true or not, he accepts it as true. But instead of being angered at a great wrong committed against the woman whom he has come to love, he just says that that is a common occurrence: a sad reality of life. He has no intention of stopping that from happening again, just to make it so that she does not have to worry about that happening to her again.
It is difficult to say whether Okuda’s grievances against his Bureau colleagues are justified. But, when he is found out, the other cops are a lot more brutal than Kumogiri is when his subordinates mess up. It may be because the cops view their job as a higher calling, and corruption is a great evil. Takase certainly seems to believe that. Abe is not so sure. This is his job. He does what he does because it is his job. And he wants to do the best that he can. He may be surprised when he learns about Kumogiri’s tragic backstory, but it does not shake his resolve. He is not here to right the wrongs that are plaguing Japan; he is here to catch those who violate the laws and upset the order of things.
I would not say that the movie is without the odd choices. I cannot say how dedicated the movie is to the original story, but there is definitely a lot of story. And characters. While Abe is kind of the only member of the Bureau whom audience members are expected to follow, there are…a lot of members of Kumogiri’s gang. They all get a little text tag to show their names, but there is no way that one could remember them all. Some of them show up briefly, disappear, and then show up once again. I have mentioned this one character who is introduced only to suddenly take part in a sudden plot twist and then…disappear. There are a few main characters who…erm…let’s say it seems like the movie was going to have their storyline go somewhere…only for them to just disappear from the movie altogether. The movie is long, but that is because there is a lot of story. I gather that there was a Kumokiri Nizaemon television series in the 1990s that totaled around 11 hours, so about four times the length of the movie. Perhaps that allowed for more time with the characters. Maybe. I don’t know; it does not seem to be available stateside. I doubt that it is as dirty as this movie, though.
Yeah, I like this one. You like swordfights? This one has swordfights. It can be a little complicated and…messy. But it is a good one.
WTF ASIA 246: Yi-Yi (Taiwan: 2000, approx. 174 minutes)
WTF ASIA 247: A Record of Sweet Murder (South Korea/Japan: 2014, approx. 86 minutes)