It's got a stunning pedigree, but I didn't really like it. You can probably apply a "Finn dislikes samurai" discount to that, though.
This film was long in the making. In 1969 four of Japan's greatest directors set up a production company (Yonki no kai) with which they hoped to save the Japanese movie industry from imminent financial collapse. Unfortunately the group's only movie together would be Akira Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-den (1970), which flopped. Yonki no kai duly fell apart and their other planned projects were never made... except for Dora-heita. Thirty years later, Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi and Keisuke Kinoshita were all dead, but there was still one survivor of the original group, the Methuselah-like Kon Ichikawa. He was still only 84, so plenty of life left in him. (He'd keep making movies until he was ninety.)
Out of nowhere he thus realised this long-forgotten project, which they'd been planning to direct jointly. It's based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, as were Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Furthermore it's an old-school samurai flick, in which the only surprising story element is the fact that such a film was getting made in the year 2000. Koji Yakusho plays Koheita Mochizuki, a.k.a. Dora-Heita. This nickname is a bit of wordplay suggesting "playboy" and/or "alley cat", because of his reputation for woman-chasing, being disrespectful towards his elders and general bad behaviour. Ironically this man has been sent to clean up a corrupt small town whose officials not only admit that they have a problem with gambling, smuggling and prostitution, but regard the real "problem" as being the central government's periodic attempts to do something about it. Dora-Heita is the fourth inspector they've had in the past year, with none of the previous three lasting long. His enemies will include the town council, three crime bosses and his mistress, who's followed him all the way from Edo.
On the upside, I don't mind the fact that it's a samurai film. Dora-Heita is rather refreshing, in fact, treating everyone with 21st century casualness despite the fact that this is the Edo period and people could get decapitated out of hand for less. He's the hero, but he really is a rogue as well. He lies, forges documents and throws around enough so money in the red-light district that you'll wonder if he's planning to set up business there for himself.
In other words, he's an anti-samurai samurai. He violates all the social norms that are liable to be dull and/or annoying in samurai films. This is great. What's less great unfortunately is that I didn't like him. I'm a fan of Koji Yakusho and he brings a charming scruffiness to the role, but unfortunately he fails to make the guy interesting. He lacks the electricity of a Mifune. Yakusho's a subtle, very human actor, but this role isn't about subtlety. What it needed instead was screen presence and the ability to stamp yourself all over the film, so that the audience is transfixed by your bad behaviour and eager to see what you'll do next. Yakusho's Dora-Heita is neither intimidating nor compelling. He's just a guy who goes around behaving badly until he sees an opportunity to outwit the real bad guys.
I liked his thoughtfulness about the town's governance and economic stability, mind you. This kind of movie is generally all about beating the villains. Dora-Heita takes it one step further to ensure that the town will still have a future even after he's killed its main revenue stream and removed its entire council. However perhaps surprisingly I found myself getting slightly irritated with the fact that he's also a badass who can take down anyone with his katana. Dora-Heita and his methods are sufficiently distinctive that it feels almost like cheating to short-circuit the plot by having him beat the baddies in a sword fight. So he's tough. Big deal. I was more interested when he was outwitting people. This lack of involvement on my part is probably a four-way failure of effort from the script, the star, the director and me.
As a samurai film, I don't think it works. The music sounds like 1980s Doctor Who, the badass hero seems almost like a loser and the action scenes are badly shot. However as an anti-samurai film, there's a lot to like. I enjoyed Dora-Heita's subversion of the usual nearly fossilised samurai interactions, while the supporting cast is excellent and the film has a light touch that some people have found funny.
In summary, not really recommended. It's certainly a million miles away from anything you'd expect given its Yonki no kai origins, to the extent that you could wrench your brain trying to imagine a hypothetical Kurosawa-Mifune version of thirty years earlier. It's lightweight, but I didn't particularly enjoy it. I didn't find Dora-Heita himself likeable. However at the same time there's a lot here I appreciate, while Yakusho himself is of course the recipient of a special award for work in cinema in 1988 and has achieved international recognition for films like Memoirs of a Geisha and Babel. His performances are sufficiently rich and textured that he's always worth watching even when I think he's miscast, as here. For me this film is in one fundamental way a failure, but it's also doing interesting things and the product of some of the best-respected names in Japanese cinema, both today and in 1970. It's by no means a write-off, anyway.