It's a samurai film. It's okay, but it's not particularly dramatic and I was more interested in the girls.
Tsukigata Hanpeita is the main character's name. His story's set in a real historical era and there are lots of films about him, but he himself is fictional. He was created for a 1919 kabuki stage play, which gave him his hairline (like inverted horns) and the moon symbol on his costume.
Meanwhile the era he's in is turbulent. In 1852, Japan had been a closed country for about 250 years, forbidding almost all contact with the outside world. Commander Matthew Perry changed that by sailing his warships into Uraga Harbour, refusing Japanese demands that he leave and shelling some buildings. I believe they call this "gunboat diplomacy". This forced Japanese society to open up to the outside world, whereupon it became clear even to them that their feudal samurai society was no match for the big Western powers of the day. They were technologically and socially backward, for instance having a warrior class (the samurai) that served no social or economic purpose.
This sparked some brisk discussion in Japanese society, conducted by people who thought and spoke with their sword arms. Tsukigata Henpeita is based on two real samurai, Ryoma Sakamoto and his childhood friend Takechi Hanpeita/Zuizan. The latter organised a loyalist party with the scary-sounding slogan "Revere the Emperor, Expel the Foreigners"... which, believe it or not, was a progressive stance, because restoring the Emperor meant kicking out the Shogun. He was arrested for organising an assassination and forced to commit seppuku. Sakamoto though became an important political figure who helped to bring about the Meiji Restoration and was inspired by what he'd read about America, where "all men are created equal."
Anyway, Tsukigata Hanpeita is like those two. He resigns from his clan in an era when this was a capital crime. He encourages other samurai to study Western thinking. "Nothing is more important than to study advanced civilisation." This sounds like a cool guy... but unfortunately there's very little intellectual content here. This film's Tsukigata does the following:
(a) Hide and/or run away from other samurai,
(b) Fight when it's unavoidable, killing lots of them,
(c) Hang out with geisha from the pleasure district and get involved in a love triangle.
Oh, he's okay. He's a nice guy and I was happy to watch him. However at the end of the day, it's just a bunch of samurai scenes in a film that couldn't even be said to be going for intensity. The sword fights aren't great. I'd be interested in watching a more thoughtful Tsukigata Hanpeita film, but I think it says everything about this one that Hibari Misora plays a geisha and sings two songs, plus the opening theme. Oh, and Tsukigata can kill any number of enemies without getting blood on his sword.
The women are more interesting. There are three geisha, all of whom are friendly to each other and who talk in Kyoto dialect. One is in love with Tsukigata, while another is the long-term partner of a samurai who's Tsukigata's enemy. The third is Hibari Misora in her mid teens, so she's not in love with anyone although she does befriend a nice young samurai who looks as if he wouldn't say no. You can guess how all this goes, but it's still good to watch it play out. I liked the triangle. Everyone's in the right, bizarrely, and they're all sensible adults who want the best for their friends. That was nifty. Tsukigata in particular comes out looking better than you'd think possible of someone in his situation and is downright noble in the scene where one of the geisha is trying to kill him.
Misora's songs are enka, incidentally, but it's still Misora singing them. She's already a mature talent, despite her years, and you'll know it's her when the music starts. I love her use of her lower register.
There's a death scene at the end which is okay, I suppose. I didn't laugh or anything, even though the guy who's about to snuff it is a samurai. The film's watchable, but I can't pretend I'll be hunting down other Tsukigata Hanpeita films. (The earliest surviving one, from 1925, was apparently notable and influential, though.) What's good about this is that it gives so much story time to the ladies, to such an extent that you'd only have a 25-minute episode left if you tried to edit them out. They're likeable, even making me laugh when one of them's delighted to see Tsukigata only to remember a moment later that she's trying to be annoyed at him.
It's light and inoffensive. You could show it to children. There's no hurry to turn it off if you find it on television one day, especially if it's late at night and you'd been having trouble getting to sleep.
"We have to eliminate the disloyal."