Eleven Samurai (1966)
Directed by Eiichi Kudo

Eleven Samurai
Juichinin no samurai
Starring Isao Natsuyagi (Hayato), Ryutaro Otomo (Gyobu), Kotaro Satomi (Mitamura), Kantaro Suga (Lord Nariatsu), Koji Nambara (Tatawaki), Ko Nishimura (Daijuro), Kei Sato (Mizuno), Junko Miyazono (Orie), Eiko Okawa (Nui), Minoru Oki
Screenplay by Takeo Kunihiro, Noribumi Suzuki and Kei Tasaka
Music by Akira Ifukube

Toei Company, 95 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: AnimEigo

The final film in Kudo's "Samurai Revolution" trilogy is a lot like the first one, a straightforward cruel jidai-geki drama that's not as impenetrably dense as The Great Killing. Some critics dismiss Eleven Samurai as a mere retread of Thirteen Assassins, but there are a number of key differences that make this movie stand on its own. First, it's a genuine revenge story. The thirteen assassins were called to make a preemptive strike against a corrupt lord who hadn't personally wronged them (yet). In contrast, Eleven Samurai follows the 47 Ronin mold of samurai avenging their unjustly fallen lord.

When the shogun's no-good brother Nariatsu is on a hunting trip, he strays across the border and into the neighboring Oshi fief where he kills a peasant for innocently standing in his path. Lord Abe of Oshi happens to witness the incident and chastises Nariatsu for taking these rash actions in his territory. Nariatsu responds by shooting an arrow into Lord Abe's eye, killing him. A council of government officials meets to discuss the scandal, agreeing that Nariatsu is at fault and deserves punishment. But since his family connections make him untouchable, a cover-up is required. Minister Mizuno decrees that Lord Abe had actually trespassed into Nariatsu's land, insulted him, and Nariatsu retaliated in defense. Thus the Abe clan is to be abolished, for purely fictional crimes. Chamberlain Tatewaki of the Abe clan successfully pleads for the sentence to be postponed 30 days so he can convince the clan's retainers to accept their fate peacefully.

Of course, that ain't gonna happen. Tatewaki entrusts the bad news to loyal vassal Hayato and they agree to kill Nariatsu. Taking on the mantle of the film's key protagonist, Hayato (Isao Natsuyagi) leaves the clan to become a ronin, then rounds up ten samurai to help him. He starts be enlisting six retainers who are on the verge of taking revenge themselves before Hayato intervenes. Hayato orders them to commit seppuku for their plot, just as a test to make sure how serious they are. Also joining the team along with those six is Lady Nui, the sister of an Abe retainer who has just died from tuberculosis, and her commitment to the cause is as strong as the men's.

Hayato's men first plan to attack Nariatsu when he's drunkenly cavorting at a Yoshiwara whorehouse. But Nariatsu's shrewd chamberlain Gyobu rushes in to protect him before the assassins can strike. After the foiled attempt, a ronin named Daijuro volunteers to join Hayato. He has no ties to the Abe clan, but hates the aristocracy in general and says he's dreamed of killing that "moron" Nariatsu.

The middle act of the story takes a bit of a sop opera turn, focusing on Hayato's loving wife Orie, played by the striking Junko Miyazono. Hayato departs on his mission without informing her of what's going down, leaving her to face the shame of her husband being branded a coward as a ronin. Orie's brother Kyonosuke spies Hayato alone with Nui and jumps to the wrong conclusion. Even though he knows about the conspiracy against Nariatsu, Kyonosuke believes Hayato must have actually left Orie to pursue an affair. In his outrage, Kyonosuke makes a sloppy attempt to kill Nariatsu by himself and ends up dead. Even after hearing her brother's accusations of Hayato's infidelity, Orie's love and faith in her husband never wavers until what proves to be the bitter end.

Finally Hayato's men get their perfect opportunity to act: as Nariatsu's entourage passes through a narrow forest pass, they lie in wait poised to knock trees in their path, open fire with Daijuro's homemade bamboo cannons, and kill the wicked lord. If their ambush went off as planned, this really would be Thirteen Assassins warmed over. But this is where things radically diverge.

At the last minute, a messenger arrives to warn Hayato to call off the raid. It seems Minister Mizuno and the other senior advisors have had a change of heart in the matter of Lord Abe's murder and now intend to rule against Nariatsu. So justice will be done and the Abe clan can live on in honor... but if they kill Nariatsu now, this new reprieve goes out the window. Painfully, Hayato calls for his men to stand down. As the hated Nariatsu passes them by, Hayato has to restrain Daijuro from firing off his cannon. After all, the ronin has no stake in their clan and he only wants to see Nariatsu dead, regardless of what some remote politicans rule about his guilt or innocence.

This predicament puts a fascinating perspective on the ideas of revenge, justice and duty. Hayato's posse has taken the law into its own hands because the establishment failed to render justice. If the powers-that-be have realized their error, is it best for the vigilantes to step aside and let due process take its course? Or are the men being selfish and cowardly in seizing the opportunity to keep their clan and their lives intact, instead of taking this chance to strike down their lord's murderer?

Daijuro's dissent drives home this question of honor, and his presence as an outsider also brings another point to mind. Nariatsu's senseless murder of a commoner was the catalyst for all the turmoil that followed, and yet no one in the entire movie spends one second in consideration of that poor man. Daijuro wants to strike a blow for all who have been wronged and oppressed by vicious nobility, including people like Nariatsu's arbitrary victim. Hayato and his men are principally concerned with their clan's future being reinstated. And in the crushing, rainstorm-soaked eruption of violence that marks the film's climax, grasping blindly for that promised reward proves to be their downfall.

The Jidai-Geki Knights