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April 05, 2011

The Secret of the Urn

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Tange Sazen: Hien iaigiri
Hideo Gosha - 1966
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Primarily due to the efforts of AnimEigo, more films by Hideo Gosha are available in subtitled versions. This still only represents a small portion of the twenty-four features made between 1964 and 1992. Secret of the Urn is an early work and in some ways is a more traditional film than his genre mash-up Gyokin with its references to Hitchcock and Leone, or the masterful yakuza films like The Wolves and The Geisha. What may be of interest are the hints of things to come, as Gosha's reputation was in part made by his inclusion of more graphic sex and violence.

Tange Sazen was a samurai ordered to kill a spy. The spy was Tange's best friend, or so he thought, losing an eye and an arm in the process. The spy might have lost his life, but Tange's life is one of a poor ronin. A young boy, with an urn that various clans are dueling over, runs into Tange's hut. Tange finds himself caught between the two clans, plus a gang of thieves, all fighting for the urn for their respective reasons.

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Does anybody know if Robert Aldrich provided inspiration for Hideo Gosha? One of Aldrich's visual motifs was the use of the direct, overhead shot, sort of a god's eye view of the proceedings. There is also some similarity in the kind of protagonists, men who might not necessarily be outlaws by profession, but operate outside the law and society, loners who make temporary alliances out of need or some personal gain. At the same time, these men, seemingly amoral, also take action for the higher good, even when they do not personally benefit.

There have been several films centered on Tange Sazen over the years, from 1928 through the most recent that I am aware of, made in 2004. Even though what is sold is the character's one armed sword fighting technique, the best reason for watching The Secret of the Urn is watching Kinnosuke Nakamura cock his one good eye, and sneer at royalty and lowlifes alike. The still active Keiko Awaji plays the leader of the thieves, whose cover is that of an atonal music teacher. Awaji and Nakamura were married at the time that they made the film. A comic highlight involves Awaji distracting an army of samurai by casting off her clothing while they chase after her in a palace courtyard. One of Gosha's frequently used stars, Tetsuro Tamba, is seen here as an upstanding clan leader.

There are some other small bits that make me wish that AnimEigo had included some historical context to the story. One of the lords is seen attended to by a someone in western clothing, Portuguese perhaps. Awaji's character wields a revolver, something not seen in most period films. There is also a brief mention of foreign trade, which makes me think that the time period is sometime in the mid-19th Century. It is this combination of unusual details and some unique characters that ultimately distinguishes The Secret of the Urn.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 5, 2011 08:30 AM


I just recently saw this and enjoyed it very much. It has a real contemporary feel, I thought, and the character of Tange Sazen sits somewhere between Toshiro Mifune's Sanjuro and Zatoichi... often times in the film he seems genuinely deranged. Keiko Awaji was a delight in this playing a character for whom you don't have much hope but who ends up growing on you.

Posted by: Arbogast at April 5, 2011 04:57 PM