The Great White Tiger Platoon was part of the Aizu clan's last ditch efforts to stop the advance of Imperial troops after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Their story is one of the great tragedies of the Boshin War (1868-1869).
The film opens with legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi challenging the champions of the powerful Yagyu clan. Miyamoto effortlessly dispatches his opponents, flawlessly blazing through the competition that the Yagyu clan places before him. To save face, the leader of the Yagyu clan aborts the duel, calling for a farce "draw". Two young yet promising swordsmen watch the proceedings: Tsunashiro (Raizô Ichikawa) and Hyosuke (Shintarô Katsu).
Taken with Miyamoto's awesome skill, Tsunashiro aims to become his disciple. The legendary swordsman makes it so, seeing Tsunashiro as a tool for achieving vengeance on the Yagyu clan. Hyosuke, meanwhile, rises to become the personal mentor for the heir of the Yagyu clan. Destiny dictates that these two men must cross paths... violently.
Looking back at this film, it feels strange that I did not like it more than I did. It certainly contains many strong elements that make it watchable. Two men with no real personal spite or antagonism towards each other, are galvanized into conflict because of rank, honor and the obligations of their positions. Tsunashiro because his status as a pupil of Miyamoto, and Hyosuke because of his standing in the Yagyu clan. The scenes involving these themes certainly are strong and enjoyable to watch.
However, the film is dragged down by many less interesting parts. There is a lot of "faffing about", so to say, that just serves to distract from the main conflict itself. Tsunashiro's and Hyosuke's love- lives, for example, are a bore to watch even by jidaigeki standards. There are also some rather jarring time-lapses.
Both Raizô Ichikawa and Shintarô Katsu made this film relatively early in their careers. Both were destined for greater things. I must admit that although his performance was serviceable, Shintarô emerged as the weaker partner in the main-character duo. Raizô Ichikawa simply had more screen-presence, and therefore appeared as the more interesting part of the film (though his very distinctive eye-brows certainly helped with that!).
The direction has the serene, dignified style that is a hallmark of jidaigeki films from this period. Music is used sparingly. The swordplay likewise, is not depicted as battles between wild berserkers, but as a tranquil chessgame between two expert technicians.
The strong ending, must also be praised... but doing so would go into spoilers!
All-in-all... I found it an perfectly average film. Watchable, but nothing special. As said, its one of those movies where certain parts are definitively better than others. I give it a strong 5 out of 10.
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