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January 02, 2014

Adventure in Kigan Castle


Kiganjo no boken
Senkichi Taniguchi - 1966

There was a potential for a far more interesting film than what became of Adventure in Kigan Castle. It's all in the beginning. The setup is that Toshiro Mifune crosses what was known as the Silk Road with a Buddhist monk, on a quest to get relics of the original Buddha. The monk's goal is to help establish Buddhism in Japan. The pair join a caravan, leaving from Dunhuang in western China, going eastward. At one point in the desert, the caravan is beset by bandits. Everyone hides in a cave that turns out to be an old Buddhist temple. Mifune and the monk are abandoned by the caravan, but poke around long enough in the temple to have found hidden under a stupa, a small container with a few remains of the cremated Buddha.

I sort of exited about the premise. I read Yasushi Inoue's novel, Tun-huang many years ago. The book offers theories about the establishment of the famed Buddhist caves. Also, much of the exterior work on this film was done on location in Iran. I can only imaging how spectacular some of the shots looked on the big screen, having to settle for seeing this on letterboxed DVD. I don't know enough to know where the film was shot, but there is the wide expanse of mountains and desert. It's also not made clear when the film takes place, but there are some considerable historical liberties just within those first few opening minutes.

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Buddhism is recorded as having been established in Japan by the mid Sixth Century. I'm not sure if any European women would have actually been in western China during that time, but the film begins with a slave auction in Dunhuang, with a pretty blonde sold to the highest bidder. In a scene soon after that, Mifune is enjoying a meal in a restaurant, serenaded by another blonde. That these two women are part of the cast sets helps set up the more fantastic aspects to the film.

What might have been a fictionalized historical adventure soon shifts gears to become an Arabian nights fantasy. For that matter, the costumes worn by much of the cast aren't too different from what might have been worn by Rock Hudson or Tony Curtis in the kind of programmers churned out by Universal ten years earlier. Not that the film isn't fun to watch. Still, a story about castle intrigue, a king so distrustful that he begins executing the people he should be trusting, while somehow letting those plotting against him live, can hardly be thought of as being original. There's a magical hermit and an old witch, plus special effects that aren't very special.

Most of the cast is Toho Studios stock players, the most famous of which are Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi, just a year away from being immortalized as Bond girls in You Only Live Twice. Wakabayashi gets to vamp it up as the scheming daughter of the chamberlain, getting set up to replace the Queen. The monk is played by Tatsuya Mihashi, probably better known to more people as "that guy" who plays the inept spy, Phil Moskowitz in Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily. The films that Allen dubbed were also directed by Senkichi Taniguchi.

I've only seen a couple of films by Taniguchi, but it seems like he is overdue for a more thorough review of his work. His directorial debut, Snow Trail not only was Toshiro Mifune's first film, but has a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa. And I don't know if Woody Allen has anything to do with the original films unavailability, even in gray market DVDs, but I would sure love to see the Mihashi, Hama and Wakabayashi in the spy thrillers as Taniguchi originally intended them to be seen.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 2, 2014 07:42 AM