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August 3, 2011

Movie Review: The Secret of the Urn (aka Tange Sazen: Hien iai-giri, 1966)

By Greg Goodsell

Directed by Hideo Gosha

The first color film by acclaimed Japanese director Hideo Gosha, The Secret of the Urn will be mostly a letdown to most action-adventure fans. The plot is far too dense and complicated, in spite of the excellent subtitles that include all the historical nuances that may be lost on western viewers, and not enough action.

Buy The Secret of the Urn on DVD

Star Kinnosuke Nakamura begins the film as the ever-ethical samurai Samanesuke ordered by his leader to kill his best friend. The dutiful samurai challenges his friend to a duel in a show of respect, only to be ambushed and has his right eye gouged out and right arm lopped completely off. A year passes by, and Samanesuke has taken on the persona of Tange Sazen, a feared swordsman in spite of having only his left arm.

In the meantime, Guraku, a shogunate minister (Seizaburo Kawazu), intent on ruining the Yagyu clan, convinces the shogun to assign the Yagyus the "honor" of a shrine-rebuilding project which will bankrupt the clan. Daring not turn down the assignment, Lord Yagyu consults the clan’s wise man as to how to fund the project. He says that they should seek a brown pot on which is a coded map is printed upon. The map will lead them to a hidden Yagyu treasure that will fund the shogun's commission & preserve the clan.

The urn is wanted by several factions, including an amoral Geisha girl and her brother. The embittered Tange Sazen decides to jump into the chaotic mix just for the sheer fun of it – but later sides with the beleaguered Yagyu clan against the evil minister.

The character of Tange Sazen is a fascinating one, the subject of countless Japanese films dating back to the silent era, comic books and other popular media. The notion of a noble Samurai reduced to working with the Japanese underground is one ripe with complexity. No matter what situation Tange Sazen finds himself in, there’s always a bit of mean-spiritedness coupled with what he knows is right.

According to the fine folks at, Tange Sazen, the one-eyed one-armed swordsman, also known as "the lefty swordsman" is a folk figure from Japanese pulp fiction of the 1920s and 1930s. Tange Sazen was first adapted to the "talkies" by the great director Daisuke Ito in 1933. Short silent films featuring the character began appearing numerously by 1927, but these earliest primitive pieces.

Secret of the Urn was intended as the first of a new Tange Sazen series, but better projects captured Kinnosuke's enthusiasm and he never revisited the role. Hideo Gosha returned to the same story, updating the look of the film for 1982 in The Pot Worth a Million Ryo aka Tange Sazen: Ken Fu! Hyakumanryu no tsubo, 1982.

Samurai fans will be glad to see this stateside release, but it will only have a passing interest to general viewers. Quality for a film of this vintage is excellent, and there is the aforementioned, easy-to-read scholarly subtitles.

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