You have to wonder if some of the Japanese stars of the 60s and 70s ever took a day off. Take, for example, Tomisaburo Wakayama. Best known in the west as the babycart pushing ronin in Samurai Assassin and the Lone Wolf & Cub series, he acted in over 250 titles between 1955 and 1992! To put that in perspective, Michael Caine, one of the hardest working actors in showbiz today, has only acted in 155 projects between 1950 and 2012! But before Wakayama donned the bushy eyebrows for the Lone Wolf films, he starred in another franchise – Wicked Priest.
It’s hard to watch Wicked Priest, the first film in the series, without thinking of Zatoichi’s Shintaro Katsu. First off, there’s the stunning family resemblance (Wakayama and Katsu were brothers), but there’s also a similar character and story. I think this was an attempt to replicate the success of Katsu’s Zatoichi films as it’s not too hard to imagine that Wakayama was a tad bit jealous of his brother’s success as the blind swordsman. There’s even a scene in Wicked Priest wherein Wakayama dons dark glasses and disguises himself as a blind masseur. Show any Zatoichi fan this scene and they’d very likely think they’re seeing Katsu in a missing scene from a long lost Z film.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Wicked Priest is a good film. The main character, Mikuni Shinkai, is a 1920’s era Buddhist priest on the verge of being excommunicated. He’s a little too worldly for his position, indulging in women, drink, and gambling to excess. The leader of his sect is a little too understanding for he other priests in the order, but he maintains his forgiving stance throughout for reasons he keeps to himself.
The rest of the plot involves a local oyabun who’s strong-arming a young man to force more young women into service in his brothel. The young man in question starts out on Shinkai’s bad side but eventually reveals the source of his evil deeds and points the wicked priest’s wrath at his fiance’s captors. Shinkai reveals himself to be a true warrior priest in his fight scenes, but unlike Zatoichi, he rarely uses a weapon, choosing instead to employ taijustsu.
If you’ve ever seen a Zatoichi film, you can probably figure out the rest, but there’s much more to this film than its plot. It’s like a naughty parody of Zatoichi and as such it’s very entertaining. Shinkai is a charming character, but he’s much more interested in his own pleasure than he is in helping others. He’s a broader character than Wakayama’s stoic Lone Wolf ronin, giving the actor a chance to exhibit his comic chops alongside his martial arts skills. And if this film is anything, it’s broad. One need only look as far as the awful makeup effects to see that. But it’s the same sort of broad that’s put to good use in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. If there’s any American film that I’d compare this to, it’d be that one.
Setting the action in the 20’s instead of some of the overused feudal eras brings some refreshing new elements to the screen. The film looks terrific, but it has its flaws too. I don’t know what lenses cinematographer Nagaki Yamgishi was using, but he had some issues with keeping everyone in the same plane in focus. Maybe this is a result of using anamorphic lenses, but whatever the cause, some of the shots really suffer because of this. But director Kioshi Saeki keeps the story moving at a quick enough clip that most viewers won’t even notice.
In reading about the series online, I’ve found conflicting info about just how many Wicked Priest movies there were. Some say four with others claiming there were five, six, or even eight. I don’t know who to believe but I plan on tracking down any others that are out there. Recommended.