Two bumbling peasants play a bloody lottery in a viscous battle and end up burying corpses instead of becoming ones: driven by greed, they unknowingly wager on the right House, holding a winning hand in this fatal game of life. Akira Kurosawa’s adventure story is a travelogue through enemy territory as both Tahei and Matashichi embark upon a violent masquerade in a country exposed like the raw nerve of war.
Kurosawa begins the film with the two protagonists swearing and cursing, scrabbling in the dirt like shitworms, the very antithesis of heroism and legendary deeds. The story breaks genre conventions by focusing upon these two idiots and the part they unwittingly play in helping a princess and general escape through enemy checkpoints, the monkey on their backs greed, hidden in sticks or burlap sacks. Tahei and Matashichi bicker, argue, threaten to betray one another, all for the love of money. When they decide to help a stranger and his mute mistress it is only for monetary gain, not moral reward. They attempt to run away with the loot but are discovered and return, forever grumbling about their plight. In one unnerving scene, they even draw straws to rape the sleeping mute girl, but are kept at bay by her rock-wielding guardian angel. Even though they are dirty, sometimes disgusting, simple, annoying and often very funny, there is still a basic humility and humanity that pumps through their veins.
Kurosawa’s use of the TohoScope format is amazing, his compositions fluid and vibrant with movement. The chase scene as the secretive General Rokurota (another wonderful Toshiro Mifune performance!) races on horseback to track down the enemy soldiers is done in fast tracking shots, as slashing blades cut bone and sinew and bodies crash to the hard ground. Rokurota ends his violent encounter by dueling with the enemy General, a five minute sequence of patient observation punctuated by spear thrusts like exclamation points, tearing through the entire encampment.
Fate seems to reward Tahei and Matashichi with three horses laden with gold, and true to themselves they begin fighting over who should have the greater share. When the secret is finally revealed, the look on their faces is priceless, and they are given a single gold bar as a reward: a fortune for two peasants! But this time, they begin to trust each other and walk off-screen towards a hopeful future.
Final Grade: (B)