Vendetta of Samurai (1952)
Directed by Kazuo Mori

Vendetta of Samurai
Araki Mataemon: Ketto kagiya no tsuji
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Mataemon), Takashi Shimura (Jinza), Minoru Chiaki (Matagoro), Daisuke Kato (Mago), Bokuzen Hidari (Magoemon the elder), Toranosuke Ogawa (Buemon), Yuriko Hamada, Akihiko Katayama, Shin Tokudaiji, Kokuten Kodo (Innkeeper)
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa

Toho Company, 82 minutes
B&W, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Samurai DVD

Not to be confused with Kazuo Mori's better-known 1959 film Samurai Vendetta (Hakuoki), this overlooked classic carries some heavyweight bona fides in its opening credits. The screenplay is by Akira Kurosawa and the cast features four of the Seven Samurai, plus a couple of the familiar supporting actors from that 1954 masterpiece. With a pedigree like that, you're almost guaranteed to be disappointed when it doesn't live up to the big famous accomplishments. In that respect, this film is a delightful surprise.

Vendetta of Samurai deploys a subversive gambit to kick things off. The opening scene has the Toshiro Mifune character sternly accosting the Takashi Shimura character with a formal proclamation of vengeance for the killing of his family member. Shimura cackles villainously and an epic melee commences. Mifune dispatches waves of adversaries who tumble aside at the mere proximity of his flashing sword. Heroic music thunders as Mifune and his brother-in-law hack and slash their way to glorious revenge. And at this point you're thinking, wow, this is quite a hack job from Kurosawa and Mori. Guess they were pressured by Toho into making an old-fashioned chambara crowd-pleaser with super fake fighting and cheap theatrics, sort of standard fare for the early '50s prior to the more sophisticated films these men later made.

Just then a narrator breaks in to explain that this is a traditional version of the showdown at Kagiya Corner that has been told through the centuries. The facts surrounding the vendetta have been warped through the telling, and the villain Jinza (Shimura) was actually a noble man and the close friend of Mataemon Araki (Mifune). And Mataemon only killed two men in the incident, not 36 as the exaggerated legend has it. The narrator tells us the actual events were far more interesting than the glamorized legend: "If one compares cutting down 36 straw figures to killing two full-fledged men, it will be obvious to see which is more difficult."

And with that, we are launched into the true story. The scenery startlingly shifts to the contemporary urban landscape of the town of Ueno in 1952 Japan, taking us on a brief travelogue of the actual street corner where the historic confrontation took place. Cut to November 7, 1634, and Mataemon's party arrives at an inn on the site one hour before the fight will take place. As the men prepare for their ambush, we get a series of flashbacks filling in the backstory piece by piece.

So this film is no simple popcorn matinee at all. In its complex narrative structure and tone, it actually bears a lot of resemblance to Kurosawa's Rashomon, released two years prior. Not just in terms of the obvious nonlinear storytelling, but moreso in the comparison of idealized samurai conduct vs. the far less glamorous reality. There's also a strong parallel to the classic western High Noon, which by coincidence also came out in 1952. Both movies center around the anticipation of an appointed showdown, with the enormously suspenseful wait building up more or less in real time over the running length of each film. Adding to the synchronicity, both are only about 85 minutes long, though the suspense makes each seems much longer -- in a good way.

The man seeking revenge in the vendetta is Kazuma, the brother-in-law of Mataemon. Kazuma's younger brother was killed by Matagoro, who has reportedly found refuge with a rival clan and gone into hiding. Mataemon finds himself in unfortunate circumstances regarding his good friend Jinza, who has family ties to the clan harboring the killer. Even though Mataemon and Jinza are fencing instructors in the same clan, they will be forced to take opposite sides in the matter between Kazuma and Matagoro.

But before any scores can be settled, first the elusive Matagoro has to be found. Flashbacks show how Mataemon and Kazuma have scoured the countryside along with their vassals Mago and Buemon in a circuitous manhunt that has taken five years. Along the way we learn more about each of the four men. Mago does a lot of spying on their adversaries, and on a couple of occasions Jinza speaks to him in a friendly manner, knowing full well what his intentions are. Instead of apprehending Mago or killing him, he asks politely how Mataemon is doing and sends him on his way.

Ultimately, Mataemon and Kazuma get advance word of Matagoro's travel plans and set up an ambush at the inn in Ueno. Through the flashbacks, we learn that none of Mataemon and Kazuma's group have ever been in a fight with real swords before. Even though Mataemon is a master instructor of swordsmanship, his knowledge rests entirely in the theory of combat and practice with wooden swords. Their lack of experience eats at the four avengers in various ways leading up to and during the long-awaited confrontation.

This is really a phenomenal film. The script is as solid, complete and thought-provoking as one might expect from Kurosawa, and Mori brings it to life with exquisite pacing and restraint. He makes excellent choices in what not to show us, as demonstrated in the slow approach of Matagoro and Jinza's group to the ambush point. We want to see what they're doing and how close they're getting, but Mori makes the shrewd choice to restrict us to the perspective of Mataemon and Kazuma, hiding themselves inside the inn's entrance and relying on reports from Mago, Buemon and the innkeeper as they peek at the oncoming targets. The unforgettable final duel ruthlessly strips away all the heroic glory to reveal the true horror of two real human beings facing each other with swords to the death.

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