(Dora-Heita) ….. Koji Yakusho
Kosei ….. Yuko Asano
Nadahachi ….. Bunta Sugawara
Giyyouro Senba ….. Ryudo Uzaki
Hanso Yasukawa ….. Tsurutaro Kataoka
With: Saburo Ishikura, Renji Ishibashi, Tsuyoshi Ujiki, Isao Bito, Hideji Otaki, Shigeru Kohyama, Takeshi Kato, Noboru Mitani, Masane Tsukayama, Kyoko Kishida, Nekohachi Edoya.
Filmgoers with nostalgic memories for a golden age of Japanese cinema, when Toshiro Mifune played the fastest swordsman in the East in films by Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi, will embrace “Dora-Heita,” a nostalgic throwback to that exciting era. Pic has many of the elements that made classics like “Yojimbo,” “Sanjuro” and “Rebellion” so rewarding, but noticeably lacks their energy and muscularity. Nevertheless, there’s plenty to enjoy in this slyly humorous film from the last surviving veteran of that era, Kon Ichikawa, and pic will get plenty of fest play, with the chance of limited distribution in some territories and plenty of ancillary down the track.
Pic has an interesting history. Back in 1969, four legendary directors who, at the time, were still active, formed themselves into what they called the Committee of Four Knights to write a screenplay based on Shugoro Yamamoto’s book “Diary of a Town Magistrate,” about a samurai who poses as a drunken playboy to weed out corruption in a small province. The four — Ichikawa, Kurosawa, Kobayashi and Keisuke Kinoshita — apparently planned to share the direction, each one helming that part of the screenplay that most interested him.
Goodness knows how such a fascinating collaboration would have worked, but it never happened because the commercial failure of Kurosawa’s “Dodes’ka-den” brought an end to this kind of filmmaking, at least for a while.
With the other three “Knights” now gone, it fell to the 85-year-old Ichikawa to finally bring the 30-year-old project to the screen with the charismatic star of “Shall We Dance” and “The Eel,” Koji Yakusho, in the lead role.
Yakusho plays Koheita Mochizuki, a samurai assigned by the lord of a small fiefdom to take over the role of magistrate in a district notorious for its lawlessness; in fact, three magistrates have mysteriously disappeared over the past year. There is a great deal of speculation in the district, because Mochizuki has a reputation for debauchery and drunkenness — in fact, he’s been nicknamed Dora-Heita, which means “playboy” and “alley cat.”
But Dora-Heita has carefully cultivated this reputation himself, as he confides to his old friend Senba (Ryudo Uzaki), who has been serving as an administrative official in the district, and he urges Senba to keep the rumor mill rolling.
When Dora-Heita appears before the venerable members of the district council, they’re appalled at his slovenly appearance and disrespectful attitude; in fact, they’re about to boot him out when he reveals that he carries with him a personal message from the lord, which gives him full and absolute authority.
The chief area of concern in the district is the high-crime township of Horisoto, a hellhole in which violence, prostitution, smuggling and other forms of criminality flourish under three powerful gang bosses. Horisoto is out of bounds to members of the samurai class, but that doesn’t stop Dora-Heita from crossing into this forbidden territory. He sets out to make himself a target for the gangsters, hoping to flush out the real criminals behind them.
But his unorthodox behavior not only infuriates the gang leaders; it also deeply offends a righteous group of noble young samurai known as the Kenshi Faction, who plot the assassination of the unconventional law officer.
Now the target of just about everyone in the district, Dora-Heita is dealt a serious blow in his campaign to stamp out corruption by the arrival of Kosei (Yuko Asano), his former mistress. A geisha from Edo, she reluctantly allowed Dora-Heita to leave her because he told her he was going to marry a respectable woman and settle down. Now that she’s discovered he has no intention of settling down, she demands that he return to her, and she won’t take no for an answer.
With a sly sense of humor that starts with the opening credit titles, “Dora-Heita” contains all the ingredients of the classic samurai movie, essentially the character of the loner with enemies on all sides who manages to overcome all odds, thanks to his incredible swordsmanship and his moral rectitude, though he has a lot of fun pretending to be a disreputable character along the way. It’s a role that would have been perfect for Mifune, but Yakusho confidently plays the part with just the right degree of humor and swashbuckling expertise.
Despite all these tasty ingredients, the film never achieves the admittedly high level of the vintage samurai films. Ichikawa was never as robust a director as Kurosawa, and the staging of the scenes of confrontation lack the edge and force that the master filmmaker always brought to them. Framing of the shots also lacks the striking feeling of excitement found in the original films. Disappointingly, there is only one sword fight in “Dora-Heita,” a scene in which the hero is attacked by dozens of bad guys, but effortlessly dispatches them all.
Production is solidly crafted down the line, with efficient camerawork by Yukio Isohata (sadly not in a widescreen format) and a striking, classical music score by Kensaku Tanikawa. Of the supporting players, Asano is amusing as the feisty, Hawksian heroine who is determined to get her reluctant man back, while Uzaki brings depth to the character of the hero’s only friend in this dangerously unstable backwater.