At night, a man in samurai garb with an angry-looking face in medium close-up stares at someone in front of him

The Sword in the Moonlight Trilogy (Daibosatsu tōge I-III, 大菩薩峠), 1957-1959

Other titles: The Great Bodhisattva Pass: Part I (1957), The Great Bodhisattva Pass: Second Part (Dai ni bu, 第二部) (1958) The Great Bodhisattva Pass: Final Version (Kanketsu Hen, 完結篇) (1959) (literal English titles); Swords in the Moonlight, Souls in the Moonlight, The Great Buddha Pass (alternate English titles); Le passage du grand Bouddha (alternate French title)

Production Company Toei (Kyoto)
ScenaristsInomata Katsuhito, Shiba Eizaburō
SourceDaibosatsu tōge by Nakazato Kaizan (multi-volume novel 1913-1944, unfinished); also 1920 play of the same name (uncredited)
ProducersŌkawa Hiroshi, Makino Mitsuo [Part I only], Tamaki Jun’ichirō [Part I only]
CinematographyMiki Minoru
MusicFukai Shirō
Production DesignNanri Konparu, Tamaki Jun’ichirō
Art DirectionSuzuki Takatoshi
Costume DesignMikami Gō
EditorMiyamoto Shintarō
PerformersKataoka Chiezō (Tsukue Ryūnosuke), Nakamura Kinnosuke (Utsugi Hyōma) Tsukigata Ryūnosuke (Shichibei), Hasegawa Yumiko (Ohama/Otoyo), Oka Satomi (Omatsu (adult)), Yamagata Isao (Lord Kamio), Sawamura Sadako (Okaku), Kishii Akira (Yohachi), Hidari Bokuzen (Dr. Doan), Kinzō (Kataoka Eijirō [Parts 1 and 2 only]), Hoshi Michiko (Okimi, aka Otama [Parts 2 and 3 only]), Kaga Kamio (Tomo [Parts 2 and 3 only]), Azuma Chiyonosuke (Lord Komai, [Parts 2 and 3 only]), Urazato Harumi (Okinu [Parts 2 and 3 only]), Kono Akitake (Ganriki [Parts 2 and 3 only]), Kogure Michiyo (Otoku [Part II only]), Hidaka Sumiko (Otaki, Omatsu’s aunt [Part I only]) Ōkōchi Denjirō (Shimada Toranosuke [Part I only]), Kitagawa Chizuru (Ogin [Part III only]), Ueki Yoshiharu (Ikutarō/Kuratarō [Parts 2 and 3 only])
StatusExtant
PhotograpyColor1
Format35mm
Ratio2.35:1 (Toeiscope)2
English SubtitlesYes
Original Release DatesJuly 13, 1957; April 21, 1958; April 28, 1959
LengthPart I: 118 minutes; Part II: 105 minutes; Part III: 104 minutes (Total: 327 minutes)
Festival/Retrospective ScreeningsMOMA Retrospective (2016)

Plot Highlights

Note: the three parts of the Sword in the Moonlight trilogy have a collective running time of nearly five-and-a-half hours. Therefore, it’s neither practical nor desirable to include a full plot summary for the three parts. Instead, the following are the highlights of the trilogy’s narrative, including the most important characters and narrative events. It has been necessary to omit many events and minor characters to maintain a manageable length. The Commentary and Analysis section on the following pages will explain and comment upon some of these characters and events.

Part I

  • In 19th Century Japan, some years before the fall of the shogunate, an old pilgrim and his young granddaughter, Omatsu, arrive at a holy site in the mountains, the “Daibosatsu tōge” (the Great Buddha mountain pass). After the granddaughter leaves the old man alone for a few moments, a local samurai, Tsukue Ryūnosuke, approaches the man and, for no apparent reason, draws his sword and kills him. The girl, returning, grieves for her grandfather, while a passing stranger, the elderly thief Shichibei, the only witness to the crime, watches Ryūnosuke walking away in the far distance.
  • Ryūnosuke returns to his family home in Sawai village in Bushu, which also serves as the headquarters for his father’s dōjō (fencing school). He is scolded by his father, from whom he is estranged, for his heartlessness.
  • Ryūnosuke is scheduled to challenge Utsugi Bun’nojō in a fencing match the next day. Ohama, Bun’nojō’s wife, pretending to be his sister, arrives at the dōjō to beg Ryūnosuke not to go through with this match. Instead of complying, with the assistance of his servant Yohachi he has the woman kidnapped, brought to a local ruined mill and (apparently) raped.3Her furious husband, learning of her abduction, divorces her.
  • The match proceeds as scheduled, and Ryūnosuke fatally wounds Bun’nojō. As Ryūnosuke departs via the forest, Ohama warns him of an ambush by swordsmen of her husband’s dōjō, seeking revenge. Instead of fleeing, he kills all the swordsmen and takes Ohama with him to Edo (modern-day Tokyo).
  • Ryūnosuke is shown living in Edo with Ohama and their infant son, Ikutarō. The couple quarrel, and she accuses him of heartlessness.
  • During a walk, Ryūnosuke passes a dōjō and, looking inside, spots a highly-skilled young swordsman, Utsugi Hyōma, who is, unbeknownst to him, the younger brother of the man he killed, Bun’nojō. He challenges Hyōma to a match, but the head of the dōjō, Shimada, stops the match before the older man can kill Hyōma.
  • The adult Omatsu works at the estate of a corrupt lord, Kamio, who forces her to play a game similar to “strip poker” in front of other women. The virginal Omatsu resists this and other advances, and Shichibei, who has “adopted” her, helps her escape.
  • One rainy day, Hyōma, seeking shelter from the wet weather, stands under the eaves of the house where Omatsu has been recovering from an illness. (She had been taken in by her aunt Otaki, who years earlier had rejected her urgent request for help.) Omatsu invites the young swordsman inside. From Yohachi, who is now working for Omatsu, Hyōma hears that he had once worked as Ryūnosuke’s servant and is now searching for him. Hyōma concludes that his brother’s killer is hiding somewhere in Edo.
  • Hyōma discovers where the samurai is living and sends a letter of challenge to him for a duel to avenge his brother’s death. Ryūnosuke shows the letter to Ohama and casually remarks that the young man “probably” couldn’t defeat him in a duel to the death. Ohama, horrified that her husband might kill her former brother-in-law, tries to kill Ryūnosuke. He stops her, but Ohama, now hysterical, begs him to kill her and the child.
  • Ohama runs out of the house screaming for Hyōma. When Ryūnosuke runs after her, she calls him a monster and tries again to kill him, but he mortally wounds her and flees.
  • Hyōma and Yohachi, hearing her cries, find Ohama alone on the ground and watch her die. Yohachi then takes charge of Ohama’s orphaned infant, Ikutarō, and travels with the baby toward Ryūnosuke’s hometown of Sawai village.
  • Ryūnosuke, in his wanderings, comes upon a couple whose unconscious bodies have just been rescued from the sea by a local crowd. The man had drowned, but the woman, Otoyo, who survived, looks exactly like Ohama, a fact which haunts the samurai. He leaves behind a memento for her.
  • Hyōma again meets Omatsu, who is now a geisha, and enlists her in his revenge plot against Ryūnosuke.
  • At the geisha house where Omatsu works, the samurai discusses with a member of the Shinsengumi their plan to assassinate an enemy, Serizawa Kamo (an actual Shinsengumi leader). But though he’d joined the group to kill people, he perversely refuses this assignment. As they quarrel, the two men detect Omatsu hiding in the room, eavesdropping, and capture her.
  • Ryūnosuke sends the other man away and demands that Omatsu wait on him. He sees a phantom in the form of the pilgrim, her grandfather, whom he had killed, and when he lashes out with his sword at this chimera, Omatsu runs out of the room. The insane samurai sees images of others he has murdered, but when he strikes at them with his sword, they all disappear.
  • After his attack of insanity and a near-fatal trance, Ryūnosuke is nursed back to health in Miwa Village by Otoyo. She is sympathetic to the fact that he has no wife and is separated from his son, and requests permission to accompany him to Kanto, which he grants.
  • A local man named Kinzō wants Otoyo for his wife, but she had rebuffed him. While Otoyo is alone on the road, waiting for Ryūnosuke to begin the journey to Kanto, a large man kidnaps her. He brings the unconscious woman to Kinzō. However, after Kinzō pays the thug, the latter doesn’t leave but tries to rape Otoyo. The two men fight and Kinzō kills him.
  • Hyōma finally arrives with Omatsu in Miwa Village… three days after Ryūnosuke had gone. The young man travels to the hot springs, where he meets Otoyo and is struck by her resemblance to his late sister-in-law, Ohama. When he mentions this, Otoyo tells him that a man she had known had told her she reminded him of his deceased wife, Ohama. Hyōma realizes that this woman was involved with Ryūnosuke, and tries to find out his current whereabouts from her.
  • Some fighters of the Tenshu movement – supporters of the Emperor and thus enemies of the Shinsengumi – with whom Ryūnosuke is temporarily allied, hide out in a hut in the hills next to a cliff where they, deprived of resources, contemplate suicide. The samurai refuses to join them in death, however, much to their disgust.
  • Hyōma, who has followed the Tenshu fighters and Ryūnosuke, throws a grenade into their hut. In the resulting explosion, Ryūnosuke is permanently blinded.
  • Despite his disability, the samurai still defeats all of Hyōma’s men who attack him. The young samurai chases Ryūnosuke to the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea, but when he and his men reach the edge, his enemy has disappeared.

Part II

Note: This part begins with a four-minute summary of the events of Part I.

  • Otoyo, who is now living with Kinzō, who abducted her, has somehow located the blind samurai in his solitary hut in Ryujin. Because he is a hunted man, Ryūnosuke urges her to abandon him, but she begs to be allowed to take care of him, and he doesn’t object.
  • Back home, Otoyo surreptitiously takes down a Wanted poster with Ryūnosuke’s picture on it. Kinzō witnesses this and accuses her of still being in love with the samurai. He assaults her and threatens to kill her, but she escapes.
  • She makes her way to Ryūnosuke’s hut and urges him to run away. But as they are leaving, Kinzō catches up with them. Partly to protect her and partly in self-defense, the samurai kills Kinzō.
  • At Fuuichi, Ise, the corrupt Lord Kamio demands that Otoyo, who is working as a mere maid, not as a geisha, entertain him. The innkeeper offers her money to comply with the lord’s wishes, on the condition that she wouldn’t have to service Kamio sexually. Otoyo agrees because she needs money for Ryūnosuke… and for a doctor for herself.
  • Kamio rapes Otoyo, an act witnessed by Shichibei, who had earlier witnessed his less-successful attempt to seduce his ward, Omatsu.
  • In revenge, Shichibei steals a great deal of money and an expensive pillbox from Kamio. Okimi, a shamisen player, through Muku, her large black dog, finds the pillbox, which she doesn’t know is Kamio’s, and seeks its owner. Kamio, temporarily stranded because of the stolen funds, learns to his disgust that Otoyo has committed suicide.
  • Men arrive to arrest Okimi for her alleged theft of the pillbox, but with Muku’s help, she escapes and runs away with an itinerant entertainer named Tomo.
  • Okimi finds her way to Ryūnosuke’s home to inform him about a will Otoyo had entrusted to her care and to give him the money for which the deceased woman had prostituted herself. Okimi is shocked that the samurai is unmoved by Otoyo’s death.
  • In Hamamatsu, Ryūnosuke, his face concealed and accompanied by Muku the dog, is playing a recorder-like instrument when some men ask him to play for them. He ignores them, and when they challenge him for his “rudeness,” he kills them all.
  • A local woman, Okinu, discovering that the samurai is blind, feels compassion for him and takes him in. She travels with Ryūnosuke by palanquin on the Tokaido Road to Kakegawa. Shichibei and another thief named Ganriki follow on foot behind them.
  • At Kakegawa, Ganriki plans to rob Ryūnosuke while he is sleeping, but even while asleep, the samurai manages to foil him. When Ganriki has some palanquin-bearers bring the samurai to a remote location, he pays them to leave so he can kill the samurai. Just as he is about to do so, Ryūnosuke rises from the palanquin and strikes the thief with his sword, cutting off his hand and part of his arm.
  • Later, a woman who sells medicines, Otoku, leading a group of singing young girls through the mountains, comes upon the abandoned Ryūnosuke, unconscious but still alive after the murder attempt. She administers medicine to him.
  • While Hyōma searches for his enemy, Otoku shelters the recovering Ryūnosuke in Narata. Her young son, Kuratarō, reminds him of his own abandoned son, Ikutarō, whom the servant, Yohachi, is still caring for. Later, Ryūnosuke tells her of his desire to remain in these peaceful surroundings indefinitely, much to her relief. She informs him that a bride will shortly be arriving for a marriage with a member of the wealthy Mochizuki clan, which owns gold mines in the area.
  • Lord Kamio arrives in Narata in a palanquin with his entourage and pretends to cast doubt on the Mochizuki clan’s wealth. He announces his plan to interrogate them, much to the shock of the clan. Over the clan’s objections, he seizes the groom as a hostage.
  • Some distance from the town, Kamio’s henchmen set upon the Mochizuki bridal procession and seize the bride. Hyōma, who happens to be resting by the side of the road, intervenes to stop the crime and easily defeats Kamio’s men. Hyōma decides to protect the bride by accompanying her and her entourage to Narata.
  • The groom is tortured in a courtyard by Kamio’s men, as Ryūnosuke, Otoku and the boy hear his cries of anguish in an upstairs room. Otoku begs the samurai to intervene, but he replies that it is the Mochizuki clan’s “destiny” that they endure this suffering. Like Ohama and Okimi before her, Otoku chides him for his hard-heartedness.
  • Relenting, the samurai leaves the room and approaches Kamio’s men. He shows their leader his quite ordinary spear, falsely claiming that it’s a Mochizuki heirloom that he wants the man to appraise, and then skewers him with it.
  • The rest of Kamio’s clan in the courtyard attack Ryūnosuke, which allows the groom to escape. As the samurai kills the men one by one, Lord Kamio seizes the little boy Kuratarō and holds him hostage to make Ryūnosuke stop killing. Otoku pleads with her lover to put down his spear to save the child, but instead, in a rage, he hurls it towards Kamio’s head, hitting a pillar. The latter releases the boy and asks Ryūnosuke to chat with him privately.
  • Praising the samurai’s skill, Kamio requests that he accompany him to Kofu. The samurai, noting that Kofu is close to his hometown of Bushu, ponders this offer. Otoku weeps, reminding him that he’d said he now wanted a peaceful life, but he tells her his heart has now changed, and she leaves. Kamio asks him to kill a rival, Lord Komai, and the Ryūnosuke agrees. He remarks that he never killed anybody because someone asked him to, but because he wanted to kill.
  • Hyōma reaches Narata with the bridal procession. By the side of the road, he spots Otoku with Kuratarō praying at some samurai grave markers. Questioned by Hyōma, she admits that she’s not praying for the dead samurai, but for their killer. He begs her to tell him who that killer is, but she is silent. However, the boy replies that he is “my blind uncle” and Hyōma realizes that it is Ryūnosuke. He asks Kuratarō where the samurai went, and runs off in the direction the boy indicates.
  • Ryūnosuke is last seen traveling in a palanquin on his way to Kofu with Kamio. The walls of the palanquin give way, and he is seen against a backdrop of darkness and smoke.

Part III

Note: This part begins with a four-minute summary of Parts 1 and 2.

  • In Kofu, shortly after the arrival of Ryūnosuke, mysterious and apparently random deaths begin to occur all over the town, including those of a woman and a street peddler.
  • One night, Hyōma arrives at the estate of Lord Kamio in Kofu. The young man declares that he is engaged in a vendetta against Ryūnosuke, who he knows accompanied Kamio to Kofu, and he demands that the man reveal the samurai’s whereabouts. Kamio claims not to know who Ryūnosuke is. He suggests that Hyōma voluntarily submit to arrest; then, when his name is cleared, he will help the young man with his vendetta “if it’s in line.” The young man naively agrees with this plan.
  • When Hyōma leaves, Kamio instructs his aide Yamaguchi to keep Hyōma safely under lock and key for the indefinite future, so as not to interfere with his own plans for Ryūnosuke. Shichibei, hiding in the bushes, overhears their conversation.
  • Shichibei arrives at the house of Omatsu’s friend, Dr. Doan, where she is staying, and informs her that Hyōma has been thrown in jail. She determines to go to Kofu to get a job as a live-in maid at Kamio’s mansion to seek information about Hyōma.
  • A woman named Ogin, the lower part of whose face is concealed by her headdress, arrives at Kamio’s estate. Ogin informs Kamio that she is rejecting his marriage proposal and that she is only there to deliver her father’s sword. She says that too many people are after her family’s fortune by seeking to marry her, but Kamio unconvincingly denies that that is his motive for proposing. He decides that the sword should be given to Ryūnosuke and suggests that they deliver it personally to the samurai.
  • After giving the sword to the samurai in the ruined mansion where he is staying, Kamio and Ogin retreat to a private room, where he again proposes marriage to her. She removes the headdress that conceals her face, revealing a grotesque purple birthmark on her left cheek. When she asks Kamio if he still wants to marry her, the lecherous lord replies that for the sake of her family fortune, he could “bear half her face,” and chases the terrified woman through the house.
  • Still running, she takes refuge in Ryūnosuke’s room, but Kamio laughs at the idea that the brutal samurai would protect her. However, when Kamio tries to seize Ogin to carry out the “marriage ceremony” (rape), the samurai responds by cutting a lighted candle in front of him in two with the sword… without snuffing out the flame. The nervous Kamio claims that he was only joking and leaves.
  • Shichibei sneaks into the prison where Hyōma is – Omatsu had earlier stolen the prison floor plan from Kamio’s papers and given it to the thief – and releases not only Hyōma but other prisoners, including his two cellmates, who are fighters in the anti-shogunate movement.
  • The three escaped prisoners seek refuge from the police in the house of Lord Komai. The two revolutionaries plead with the official for Hyōma, because he was imprisoned under a false charge by Kamio. Komai promises to help.
  • At a yabusame (mounted archery) contest, Lord Komai and Lord Kamio compete against each other through archers representing them. Kamio has hired a skilled ronin who does very well in the contest, but Hyōma, representing Komai, performs brilliantly and wins the contest, much to Kamio’s chagrin. Okimi, witnessing Hyōma’s victory, tells Omatsu to go to a nearby shrine that night for a secret meeting with the young swordsman.
  • Led by Tomo and Muku, Hyōma arrives at his nighttime rendezvous with Omatsu and they renew their love. On that same evening, Komai is returning from a party celebrating his victory when he is confronted by Ryūnosuke, who kills many of Komai’s men.
  • Hyōma, who hears the commotion nearby, arrives to defend Komai. He recognizes Ryūnosuke and attacks him. Kamio tries to arrest Hyōma, but the young man reminds him that he’s engaged in a (legally protected) vendetta, and thus Komai prevents the arrest. Despite this, Kamio orders the ronin from the archery contest to try to kill Hyōma with an arrow. Omatsu, seeing the danger, runs to Hyōma and is herself hit by the arrow in the shoulder, wounding her. Kamio ends the fight by ordering Ryūnosuke’s arrest. The lord asks Komai to hand over the jailbreaker Hyōma, but the latter refuses. Kamio then demands of Komai a conference in the main hall the following day.
  • At the conference, Komai accuses Kamio of hiring Ryūnosuke to kill him. Kamio invents a series of plausible-sounding denials. Komai orders an investigation, but since he himself is involved and thus can’t serve as judge, he orders Kamio to return to Edo to await interrogation.
  • Before leaving Kofu, Kamio orders his aide, Yamaguchi, to “dispose of” Ryūnosuke and Ogin, as they might be used against him in his case.
  • That night, at the mansion, Ogin declares her love for the samurai, wishing to stay with him always. Yamaguchi and his men arrive at the mansion and set many fires beneath the building to smoke out the couple. When they emerge from the burning house, Ogin hands Ryūnosuke his sword and the samurai kills all the assassins.
  • Ogin and the samurai find shelter with Koizumi, a squire in Yawata, who has a shrine in his house dedicated to his brother’s deceased daughter. When Ogin sees an object on the altar with the words “Evil Young Woman” carved into it, she asks why the dead woman is referred to in that way. From the squire’s answers, Ogin realizes to her horror that the woman had been Ryūnosuke’s wife, Ohama, and that the samurai had killed her.
  • During a walk one night, Ryūnosuke goes to the same disused mill in which he had raped Ohama before she ran away with him. A serving girl appears and he asks her age and name. She tells him she is eighteen, but refuses to give her name and begs him to spare her life. He kills her anyway. People of the village recover the girl’s body from the river.
  • The following day, Ryūnosuke is lying on the ground by Ohama’s tombstone when Ogin berates him for having killed the girl. He coldly replies that if she’s frightened of him, she should leave, but if she stays, she too will become an “evil young woman” like Ohama.
  • Hyōma, who has just received the chonmage of a samurai, brings Omatsu to Daibosatsu Pass to pray together for the souls of her grandfather and his brother. They hear singing nearby and discover a tiny hut in which the servant Yohachi works, while the boy Ikutarō – Ryūnosuke’s son – sings with him. Hyōma asks the servant who the boy is, and when the latter informs him, the young man fondly recalls the kindness of the child’s dead mother, his sister-in-law. Yohachi and the child pray before a statue of Buddha for forgiveness for the samurai’s crimes.
  • At the Koizumi residence, as a torrential rainstorm rages outside, Ryūnosuke, after drinking saké, experiences a horrifying hallucination. He imagines that he is walking in the realm of the dead with Ohama, who confronts him with the severed heads of each of the samurai’s victims. He sees Ikutarō standing alone and scared under a tree and reaches out to him, but is mysteriously whisked away. Ryūnosuke awakens from his trance, crying out Ikutarō’s name.
  • Hyōma and Omatsu, returning from the mountain pass, are informed by Shichibei that Ryūnosuke is staying with Koizumi in Yawata. Despite the pouring rain, Hyōma hurries there for a final confrontation with his enemy.
  • The bewildered Ryūnosuke asks Ogin what is happening, and she tells him that because of the storm, the River Fuefuki is overflowing its banks, making the whole area extremely dangerous. He then asks her where the sound of a crying child is coming from, but she hears no such sound. He wanders off, calling for Ikutarō.
  • Ogin catches up with him to try to stop him, but he knocks her down, madly claiming that Ikutarō (who is, in fact, perfectly safe) is in danger. Hyōma approaches and finds the hysterical Ogin on the ground, then follows the samurai down to a bridge spanning the swollen river.
  • Ryūnosuke begins to cross this bridge, still calling Ikutarō’s name. The young man draws his sword to kill the samurai, but at that moment the entire bridge begins to give way. From the river bank, Hyōma, Ogin, Omatsu and Shichibei witness the bridge collapsing, carrying the anguished samurai away on the river as he continues to cry out Ikutarō’s name. 

(Continued on Page 2)

Footnotes

  1. This was Uchida’s first color film. Color had only been employed for the first time in Japan in 1951, when Kinoshita Keisuke released his classic comedy, Carmen Comes Home (Karumen kokyo ni kaeru). The full adoption of color by the national cinema would turn out to be a very gradual process, and it would only be long after this period (that is, the mid-to-late 1950s) that virtually all Japanese productions would be in color, as became the case in the U.S. However, except for The Eleventh Hour (Dotanba, released later in 1957) and A Fugitive from the Past (Kiga Kaikyō, 1965), none of Uchida’s remaining films, from the first part of this trilogy on, would be in black-and-white.
  2. The widescreen format was first introduced into Japanese Cinema with Samurai Bride Hunter (Ohtori-jo hanayome), a.k.a., The Lord Takes a Bride, directed by Uchida’s Toei colleague Matsuda Sadatsugu – son of Japanese film pioneer Makino Shirō – and released on April 2, 1957. (This is the film that Matsuda is chiefly remembered for.) The release of the first part of Uchida’s trilogy followed very shortly after Matsuda’s work, in July of the same year. The use of widescreen was embraced by the Japanese industry for the same reason that the U.S. movie industry adopted it: to give audiences an experience that would be sufficient reason to temporarily abandon their television sets – TV was becoming increasingly popular in Japan – and go out to theaters. Unlike the U.S. industry, though, the Japanese were to employ the new format with extraordinary creativity: not only films by the great masters like Kurosawa Akira and Kobayashi Masaki, but quite ordinary program pictures were made with exquisite attention to the use of screen space and compositional detail. The format became so common in Japan that, by 1960, Ozu Yasujirō was virtually the only director still shooting in the standard Academy ratio.
  3. Several online reviewers have claimed that Ohama isn’t really raped, but seduced, which would change the meaning of the relationship between the two characters. The staging of the scene is indeed ambiguous, with no assault being shown before Uchida cuts to the next scene.

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