Duel of Blood and Sand (1963)
Directed by Sadatsugu Matsuda

Duel of Blood and Sand
Chi to suna no ketto
Starring Ryutaro Otomo (Inaba), Satomi Oka (Nana), Jushiro Konoe (Ichibe), Koji Kiyomura, Choichuro Kawarasaki, Kei Sato, Kamatari Fujiwara, Toyo Takahashi, Masao Mishima, Miyuki Sasa, Hideo Hongo

Toei Company, 91 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Samurai DVD

Since its plot concerns a samurai defending a peasant village against a horde of bandits, Duel of Blood and Sand must inevitably be considered an homage and/or ripoff of Seven Samurai. It's even got Kamatari Fujiwara playing one of the villagers just as he did in the Kurosawa classic. But this movie is surely one of the best variations on the theme and deserves consideration on its own merits beyond being derivative. Sadatsugu Matsuda deepens his story with a provocative, original plot twist: what would happen if immoral samurai chose to help the bandits instead of the farmers?

Ryutaro Otomo stars as Yajuro Inaba, a samurai who has just left his clan because of his lord's corrupt practices. Inaba happens upon a village where bandit is tormenting a woman with intent to rape her. After Inaba kills the assailant, the villagers shun him in horror instead of thanking him. The reviled town prositute, Nana, explains to Inaba that they fear the retribution that will befall them when the bandits find that one of their number has been killed. Inaba confronts the village over their cowardice and exhorts them to fight instead of letting the thugs steal their harvests and assault their women. After much debate, the peasants half-heartedly agree to let Inaba train them in defense.

Meanwhile, Inaba's former lord sends four men to track him down and kill him, led by Inaba's old friend Ichibei. At first they think he'll be easy pickings holed up in the village, but Inaba's canny strategies allow him to keep slipping from their grasp, and all the villagers defending him make things that much more difficult. When they learn the arrangement between Inaba and the village, Ichibei's men threaten to join forces with the bandits in their attack if the farmers continue to aid and abet the fugitive.

In private, Ichibei and his men reflect on this being an empty threat to scare the villagers into cooperating, since it would be entirely dishonorable for samurai like them to collude with bandits. They serve only their master, and it would violate their bushido code to fight alongside common criminals. But Inaba is smart enough to predict that his pursuers won't hold firm to their righteous ideals. In the heat of battle when the going gets tough, Ichibei and his cohorts compromise their samurai honor and offer to form an alliance with the bandits. In an amazingly clever plot twist that I would love to spoil for you but won't, Inaba has taken steps to assure that their hypocrisy will assure their downfall. It's really one of the most awesome conflict resolutions I've ever seen in a samurai film.

Duel of Blood and Sand is an unknown minor masterpiece and the best film I've yet seen by Sadatsugu Matsuda. It's one of his final works and has an uncharacteristic look and feel compared to his earlier movies, which tend to be more like conservative studio products. This is more of a freewheeling artistic production with the outlaw tone of a Hideo Gosha film, as if Matsuda was feeling his oats as an old master aiming to do his own thing before settling into retirement. Ryutaro Otomo rises to the occasion in one of his most fiery performances, and beautiful Satomi Oka as the bold and sassy Nana goes far beyond the meek and anonymous pretty girls I've seen her play in earlier films. I also have to give special mention to the kick-ass spaghetti western style soundtrack that makes extended use of a twwaannnngg sound effect that sounds like the opening of the Looney Tunes theme. This is a treasure worth seeking out.

The Jidai-Geki Knights