Costume adventure details Mongol invasion of Japan
KING OF THE MONGOLS (1960) is a Japanese costume adventure about a samurai warrior's efforts to stop Kublai Khan's Mongol hordes from overrunning Japan in the 13th century. This unusual film looks and plays far less like a samurai movie and more like an Italian sword n' sandal spectacle--a genre which was internationally popular at the time.
It focuses on the mission of the samurai, Takemara, to deliver a message from the Emperor to the prince commanding Fort Izawa, the stronghold representing the last stand defense against the Mongols. While the journey is eventful, it takes way too long to get to the fort as the hero uses up crucial time to protect and romance a single woman traveler, Sajiri, who is on her way to the fort to find her father. Much time is also spent on the samurai's dealings with the Mongol General Tadar and his woman partner, Princess Yamatimo. At one point, the two men share a ship ride in which the general spends the entire time waiting for an opportunity to kill Takemara. When the on-deck battle finally occurs, it's somewhat anticlimactic.
Meanwhile, the oft-forgotten situation at Fort Izawa has gotten quite desperate as the Mongols blockade it, leaving the occupants without food. When Takemara finally arrives in the last fifth of the movie, his message is to hold out until the Emperor can rebuild his army--something they've already been doing in the weeks since Takemara started his leisurely journey. However, Takemara also knows of a secret oil well under the fort and organizes the use of the `water that burns' as a weapon against the Mongol attackers. The action culminates in a final, sprawling duel at the fort between Takemara and General Tadar.
Overall, the film is more melodramatic than actionful and pays significant attention to its lead women characters, both of whom fall for the hero. The princess dresses up as a dancing girl at one point, going undercover at Fort Izawa, and does an exotic, sexy dance for the assembled men--a scene much more common in Italian epics than in Japanese ones. The lead actor, Hashizo Okawa, is somewhat overwrought and a bit on the fey side, adorned with way too much make-up. He's also much more gallant towards the virtuous heroine than normal for Japanese samurai heroes. The other actors are quite strong, however, most notably screen veteran Jun Tazaki who plays General Tadar, a blustery type made up and costumed to look like he stepped out of an Italian spectacle. The actress who plays the princess is a no-nonsense type and boasts some attractive costume changes to boot. The other cast names included in the credits are Yumi Ichijo, Yayoi Furusato and Sentaro Fushimi.
While there is a fair amount of action, including a large-scale final battle, it is generally awkwardly staged. When the two antagonists fight aboard the ship, they engage in grabbing, shoving, and grappling, rather than any cleanly executed martial arts moves. The director, Yasushi Kato, simply doesn't know how to stage fights, moving his camera too close to the action too much of the time, even when the scene is filled with dozens of extras. He was given an ample budget but doesn't always know how to use it. The film lacks both the thrills of an Italian spectacle and the austere formal beauty of the best samurai films. It gives no hint of the increasingly explicit violence that would imbue the new wave of samurai films that came in its wake in the mid-1960s, most notably the Zatoichi and Sleepy Eyes of Death (Kyoshiro Nemuri) series.
Nonetheless, the film is beautifully shot (with sharp color in the print available) on a mix of studio sets and picturesque outdoor locations and is consistently gripping, despite its flaws. It's a hybrid film and, while it doesn't necessarily deliver the goods, it should prove fascinating for curious fans of these genres.
It was produced in 1960 and picked up for distribution in the U.S. by American International Pictures in 1964. It's very well dubbed into English but doesn't appear to have ever been released theatrically in the U.S., instead going straight to television. At 88:30, it seems shorter than it should be, with jarring cuts in the middle of numerous scenes.
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