Samurai Vendetta (1959)
Directed by Kazuo Mori

Samurai Vendetta
Starring Raizo Ichikawa (Tenzen), Shintaro Katsu (Yasubei), Chitose Maki (Chiharu), Ryozo Shimada (Otaka), Yoshiro Kitahara (Nagao), Tokiko Mita (Oshizu), Ryosuke Kagawa, Reiko Fujiwara, Namiji Yamato, Fujio Suga, Gen Shimizu, Saburo Date

Daiei Studios, 109 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: AnimEigo

Samurai Vendetta or Hakuoki is often cited as the finest film by Kazuo Mori. Personally, I would rather go for his Jirocho Fuji movies or the confusably titled Vendetta of Samurai any day of the week. Hakuoki is basically a samurai soap opera set on the periphery of the "loyal 47 ronin" Chushingura story. The tale of Lord Asano's retainers may be revered as the national legend of Japan, but I'm no great fan. I do appreciate it when a film tackles the jidai-geki moldy oldie from a different angle instead of retreading the whole tedious affair in 3-hour-plus form. In this case, we focus on one of the 47 ronin and his personal circumstances that led him to being among the fabled martyrs.

The film opens with the iconic image of the 47 marching through a snowy night on their way to assassinate Lord Kira. One of them, Yasubei Horibe (Shintaro Katsu), is reflecting on his life and his fateful meeting with his fellow swordsman Tenzen Tange (Raizo Ichikawa). Tenzen witnesses Yasubei running to the aid of Yasubei's uncle in a duel against the Murakami brothers. Yasubei wins the duel in spectacular fashion, and his reputation as a master swordsman nets him crowds of adoring young women who mob him like 1950s teenyboppers chasing Elvis. It's like an ironic commentary on Daiei's failing efforts at that time to make a studio idol out of Katsu, when in reality the superstar heartthrob was his co-star Ichikawa.

But Yasubei doesn't relish the glory and only has eyes for one woman, the beautiful Chiharu. Yasubei makes plans to accept employment with Chiharu's clans in hopes of marrying her, until he learns that she is already betrothed to his friend Tenzen. In his rejection, Yasubei turns away from the Uesugi clan and becomes a retainer with the Asano clan. Thus an affair of the heart decides which side of the Chushingura conflict Yasubei will end up on.

Meanwhile, Tenzen has drawn resentment for not intervening in defense of the Murakami brothers, since they were members of the same Chishu Shiden sword school as Tenzen. Five corrupt Chishu Shiden members take out a vendetta against both Yasubei and Tenzen. They abduct and rape Chiharu, now Tenzen's wife, and they spread the rumor that Chiharu is having an affair with Yasubei. Even though he doesn't believe the lies and says he still loves her, Tenzen insists on divorcing Chiharu. When Tenzen returns her to her family, her offended brother attacks Tenzen from behind and slashes off his right arm. It seems like there may be some connection between the Tenzen Tange character and the similarly named one-armed swordsman of film and folklore, Tange Sazen.

Developments proceed with lots of tragic heartache and escalations of intersecting vendetta plots, with Yasubei ultimately choosing the assignment to kill his beloved Chiharu. For me it never really rises above the level of melodrama, though. I think one weak link is Chitose Maki, the actress playing Chiharu. This was her screen debut and she doesn't have the dramatic intensity to make me believe in her as a woman that two samurai would ruin their lives over.

I will concede that Samurai Vendetta is one beautifully shot chambara. Mori and cinematographer Shozo Honda employ rich and vivid colors throughout. The bulk of the footage is shot on location, but there are a number of memorable studio shots with staged outdoor backdrops. These don't seem to be cost-cutting measures but deliberate artistic choices. In particular there is a bridge set used for a number of emotional scenes, such as the moment where Yasubei first realizes his feelings for Chiharu, and later when the five villains face off against Yasubei and Tenzen. The artificially lit sky changes color to reflect the shifting passions in each scene with a grace that recalls the great studio lighting effects of Hiroshi Inagaki.

The Jidai-Geki Knights