Sakini is the audience's guide and master of ceremonies (he beckons the audience into the film by way of a direct address to the camera) in this sharp and funny comedy about American imperialism after the end of World War II. Sakini is the interpreter for the pompous American commander Colonel Purdy (played by Paul Ford, recreating his Broadway performance, a role he would later hone to perfection as the iconic Colonel Hall in Sgt. Bilko), a windbag idiot who makes declarations like, "I'm going to teach these natives the meaning of democracy if I have to shoot every one of them" (Donald Rumsfeld couldn't have said it better). Purdy orders the bumbling Captain Fisby (Glenn Ford, in a fine comic turn, channeling Charlie Ruggles) to lord it over a small Okinawan village and give the villagers a taste of benevolent American democratic dictatorship by making the villagers build a school and organize a "Ladies League For Democratic Action." Sakini goes along with him.
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Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is a farmer and part-time potter who's sick of being poor and is delighted when he finds that a trip with his wares to a nearby town earns him a pretty penny. Quickly getting greedy, he works night and day to make more product to sell, although his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) urges caution. Genjuro's brother-in-law Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) is also sick of the simple life, but his way out is the dream of a little kid: He wants to be a samurai. His first attempt to run away and join one of the roving armies doesn't work out so well, though, with the samurai kicking him away, laughing and saying to come back when he has armor and a spear. After the village is ransacked by soldiers, Genjuro's kiln and wares somehow survive, so all four of them head to town to sell everything they can to rebuild their lives. All that comes before this point - pillaging, poverty, hopelessness - is just precursor, though, as the men are each presented with the ability to live out their dreams, opportunities they quickly snatch, leaving their loved ones to fend for themselves in a lawless and ghost-plagued land.
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