The year is 1624, and in Japan a devastating civil war is finally over, though the Emperor has given up much of his power to the influential Shogun masters, one of whom has just died, leaving the ruler of his province in doubt. But when his tomb is raided and his stomach cut out and stolen, the truth is revealed: a test proves that the Shogun was poisoned, and it emerges the culprit behind that was his sword master Yagyu Tajima (Kinnosuke Nakamura) who has his own plans to instigate over who will take over...
This was, as its publicity trumpeted, the first period epic from Japanese studio Toei for twelve years, so they made a big deal of it, not least because popular director of yakuza flicks Kinji Fukasaku was at the helm, his first in the genre. Add to that a selection of star actors from that nation, including a few who might be recognisable to Western audiences, and a bunch of fight and battle sequences, and the stage was set for... a lot of standing around talking, in the main, for it became clear early on that while there was a nod to the violence all this intrigue erupted into, Fukasaku was more interested in the conspiracy angle.
This is set out in the opening stages, when the two brothers of the dead shogun are unwittingly pitted against each other as their camps draw up schemes to secure the top job for them. For Iemitsu (Hiroki Matsukata), he doesn't seem ready for such a position thanks to everyone regarding him as weak, a state of affairs which is depicted physically by his stammer and large birthmark. But Yagyu is his mentor, and sees in this man a chance to pull the strings in the nation if Iemitsu is his puppet, admitting to him that it was indeed he who killed his father, but for the older son's own good, deceitfully making it sound like a good idea.
The younger brother is Tadanaga (Teruhiko Saigô), a decent sort who remarks late on in the proceedings that he is having trouble telling the difference between good and evil in these confusing times, a point of view which you may well sympathise with. He finds himself having to draw his own allies around him as the threat of war hangs in the air, but by the end the problems that one power struggle have wrought seem insurmountable, with nobody truly the victor thanks to the chaos, the turning of men and women against one another, that has resulted. If this sounds bleak, then that's because it is.
For Western audiences, the most famous names here would be Sonny Chiba, who plays samurai Jubei, the son of Yagyu who eventually not only loses an eye but also pretty much everything dear to him, and Toshirô Mifune who played the fuedal Lord who is supposed to be in charge but quite plainly isn't. Neither of these stars has a huge role, although Mifune has less to do in spite of his standing, but Chiba reportedly regarded this as one of his finest works and when he's onscreen in this busy ensemble, he undoubtedly makes his mark, with or without the eyepatch. His protégé Hiroyuki Sanada also appeared, then only a teenager but doing enough to make himself a star, so Westerners may recognise him as well, having been in Ring, Speed Racer and the final season of Lost, among other things. But if the star spotting is beyond you, you still had to pay attention if you wanted to follow whose side everyone was on, and even then the point was their lust for power wreaked havoc. Music by Toshiaki Tsushima.