The great Japanese samurai epics, like the great American Westerns, can, at their best, become vibrant ballets of action and violence. They can pull you into a strange world of sweeping pre-20th-Century vistas, where tigerish men in top knots and robes circle each other with deadly grace, while the air is rent with screams and silvery slashing sword strokes.
Hideo Gosha's "Goyokin," an acknowledged samurai classic (unavailable on U.S. screens for more than a decade and now settling in for a weeklong run at the Nuart, followed by a week at the Vista), was made in 1969, at virtually the close of the genre's high tide of popularity.
And, like two great Westerns released that same year, Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" and Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," it's a curious and fascinating mixture: breath-catching pictorial beauty and stomach-churning violence, blending into an overall freezing imagery of impending loss, of the passing of an era, the collapse of values and tradition. A kind of universal corruption seems to lie behind the action, like some great decaying imperial shield stained with blood.
Gosha's marvelous action movie is set at the close of the period of the samurais themselves: the moment when they, like the Wild Bunch, are about to pass out of history forever. But, like all those grizzled Westerners who refuse to quit, Tatsuya Nakadai's Mogobei--a now-masterless samurai, who has deserted his clan out of shame at the bloody massacre ordered by his lord and brother-in-law (Tetsuro Tamba)--finds one last battle to fight, one last enemy to kill, one last code to avenge.
"Goyokin" is not deep or profound, as some other "Jidai-Geki," or period films, often are. Gosha seems to see the ruling shogunate as imperviously corrupt, a tyranny that feeds all the violence, but he's less interested in critiquing historical evils than creating gorgeous backdrops and throwing scintillating action against them.