Warring Clans: ”Kill the small insect and let the larger one live”

Year:1963
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto
Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Written by Kihachi Okamoto, Shinichi Sekizawa, and Takashi Nagano
Cast: Yûzô Kayama, Yuriko Hoshi, Makoto Satô, Ichirô Nakatani, Tatsuyoshi Ehara, and Kumi Mizuno

A former Ninja abandons his clan to finds himself caught in a scheme to smuggle muskets to aid the famous Oda Nobunaga. A scheme that involves warring factions, pirates, and bandits!

In what feels like Kihachi Okamoto’s answer to Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, Warring Clans hits all the right notes to be a stellar adventure. In typical fashion of Kihachi Okamoto, it is sardonic and satirical in style. Kihachi Okamoto has a habit of shining light on Japan’s past to expose its rigid class distinctions. Kihachi Okamoto tends to make his characters escape their past life by adopting a different identity. Warring Clans is the same. But, Warring Clans has a larger cast doing the same. First impressions are very faulty in Warring Clans. The entire masquerade parade makes everyone in the film rather sleazy, but entertaining oddly. It helps reminds us that class identity is more self-imposed than anything. Bashaku the Japanese term for a traveling group of movers. The bashaku profession is like a refuge where the people can be free to escape their past and class roles. The patriarchy doesn’t overburden women in the world of the bashaku. Women are free to choose their own roles. Everyone looks relatively equal. Kichi, our hero, sits at the forefront of understanding the importance of the bashaku. And that becomes of the end-goal of the journey for Kichi. Not only does Kichi shed his immaturity and brashness. But, Kichi’s personal growth also gives the central message quite the poignancy.

Like with The Hidden Fortress, the film’s principal arc comes from the trek itself. It might lack Kurosawa’s dazzling visuals, but is no less thrilling in its execution. There is a greater mass of people moving. That alone somehow increases the scale of the journey and the importance of the cargo. The running question who are the ones carrying the real cargo or fake is always on the back of your mind. Ruse or not, the question alone is enough to invoke a bit of irony to the adventure. If it is a ruse, then they are merely pawns in a political scheme. When the truth is revealed, you like the characters view the journey differently in the grand scheme of things.
The Samurai here are rather an ironic bunch here. It’s probably best summed up with one Samurai blatantly emotionally blackmailing someone by threatening ritual suicide. It’s executed in the most blasé manner that’s indicative of Okamoto.

A wide cast of character usually means lot of plot threads. Plot threads that are dealing with issues of political intrigue, no less! Admittedly, it does become confusing, but the confusion doesn’t undermine the main narrative. The confusion isn’t too bothersome because the confusion feels like it is only part of the wider world surrounding the main narrative. We are only watching a small part in this ordeal. Still, I must say I think that business with the pirates could use a better explanation. It includes a love triangle that gives more weight to one character’s actions. Also, a romance that looks tacked on at first but is used to finalize one character’s development. A villain whose random plans fit the constantly changing circumstances. Kichi’s rivalry with the villain only makes matters more interesting. And the end for the villain itself is quite unexpected and harrowing. Like with Kichi, it is probably a sign of personal growth for the villain as well.

The ending of Warring Clans would be right at home in a Western with its Custer’s Last Stand like scenario. It is a fierce last stand in a wide open space as marauding bands come closer. The nonstop arrows flying around only help the feeling. Not the fanciest action setpiece, it’s a nice send off from a director who loves homaging Westerns. There is also an interesting reversal of how the cargo goes from a simple McGuffin to be defended to an object of defense.

Warring Clans isn’t the movie you picture from just reading the title. It’s part Western and part Jidaigeki, yet wholly it is Kihachi Okamoto in design. When the journey is over, not only are you awarded with an entertaining experience, but a great satire of class relations in Feudal Japan as well.

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