There are worlds that burn when the hearts of men and women are in turmoil, worlds that take revenge on moral transgressions, that punish those who break promises and betray kin. These are the interior worlds of religions like Shinto, its creation myth portrayed in a fascinating but somewhat sanitised form in 1959's The Birth of Japan (日本誕生 Nippon tanjo), a decadent production with an impressive cast headed by Toshiro Mifune in two roles as Susanoo, god of the sea and storms, and the mortal protagonist Prince Yamato Takeru.
Mifune is of course a familiar face in the best regarded films of Akira Kurosawa so it's a little strange seeing him in the lead role of a film that deals with a reality of externally enforced morality and metaphor, where Kurosawa's films are more psychological and about people trying to perceive or impose meaning in a world that is fundamentally chaotic. Prince Yamato embodies the impossible, dream-like ideal to which the hopelessly human Kikuchiyo, Mifune's character in Seven Samurai, aspired. The greedy and ambitious of men in his father's court and the soldiers loyal to them conspire to bring about the downfall of the physically powerful and morally incorruptible prince. But in this world, it takes a colossal effort to unseat the morally just.
His story begins when, upon finding his older brother sleeping with his father's slave, Yamato Takeru beats and exiles him. The corrupt men of the court spread the word that Takeru in fact killed his brother. The emperor, a passive, indecisive man played by Ganjiro Nakamura, won't condemn his younger son to death and instead decides to wash his hands of the matter and send Takeru on a hopeless war campaign against a clan headed by a pair of bloodthirsty brothers, one of whom is played by the other actor most associated with Kurosawa, Takashi Shimura, looking extraordinarily hairy.
Prince Yamato Takeru's ability to succeed in battle ironically depends on his faith in his loved ones, so his aunt deceives him into thinking the emperor does not want him dead. Another thorn in Takeru's side is the love triangle he's involved in, one which eventually provokes the fury of the gods. There's his love for Oto Tachibana (Yoko Tsukasa), a virgin priestess, and a princess of a rival clan (Kyoko Kagawa) Takeru manages to avoid going to war with, using diplomacy instead.
There's some resemblance to the Christ myth and the Siegfried myth in Takeru's story, the sense that this man embodies a moral purity that cannot abide in physical form in this world for long because of the fundamental sinfulness of humanity. Like those other figures, the punishment of the gods is provoked by all humanity's betrayal of Takeru.
The film tells two alternating stories--Takeru's and the story of the gods. The movie begins with the creation of the world and Bokuzen Hidari amusingly cast as Amenominaka, the leader of the gods. Hidari had a distinctive, drunken, plaintive melancholy, sort of Japan's answer to Emmett Kelly.
The creation of Japan itself is overseen by the god Izanagi (脇田博行--I can't find the romanisation of this actor's name) and the goddess Inazumi (Shizuko Muramatsu). He makes the land masses and then flowers and other flora are added when the two marry.
They come up with a marriage ceremony on the spot I thought implied an intriguing set of layers of meaning--the two walk on opposite sides of a natural pillar of stone to meet on the other side.
There are two other anecdotes of the gods shown during the film, both involving Susanoo, and one involving his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu played by Setsuko Hara.
She hides out in a cave when Susanoo offends her by throwing a dead horse among her seamstresses. The world is plunged into darkness until the other gods intrigue her by holding a festival outside, explaining the meaning behind Japanese fire festivals.
The other story involving Susanoo is a rather impressive special effects sequence where the sea god fights an eight headed dragon he first manages to get drunk with eight pots of sake.