Vengeance for Sale (2001)
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto

Vengeance for Sale
Sukedachiya Sukeroku
Starring Hiroyuki Sanada (Sukeroku), Kyoka Suzuki (Osen), Takehiro Murata (Taro), Tatsuya Nakadai (Katakura), Ittoku Kishibe (Sakakibara), Makoto Sato (Man who bribes his avenger)
Screenplay by Kihachi Okamoto

Nikkatsu, 88 minutes
Color, 1.85:1 widescreen
English-subtitled DVD: Samurai DVD

Kihachi Okamoto returned to the jidai-geki genre in 2001 for what turned out to be his final film. Vengeance for Sale is a straight-up comedy with little to offer those strictly interested in the serious and "realistic" samurai film. But for those like myself who enjoy a nice dose of humor with their swordplay, Okamoto goes out at the top of his game.

Just so you know what you're dealing with up front, the opening sequence features a group of little kids singing a merry playground rhyme that goes as follows: "Cham, cham, chambara! He is cut! He is stabbed! The blood galore! The blood galore!" How could this movie not be awesome?

Our hero is a cheerful young quasi-yakuza who calls himself Sukedachiya Sukeroku, which translates as "Sukeroku the Helper." What Sukeroku helps with is the execution of vendettas. He inadvertently fell into this unorthodox vocation one day when he jumped in the middle of a fierce duel and helped one of the combatants prevail. The victorious samurai was so grateful for the assistance in gaining the vengeance he sought that he paid Sukeroku a tidy sum. Sukeroku savored the unfamiliar thrill of a commoner like him being thanked by a samurai, not to mention the money, so he decided to make a career of it.

After spending seven years wandering Japan and offering his services in a reported 38 vengeances, Sukeroku returns to his hometown for a visit. His only family there is his late mother, whose grave he stops by for a friendly chat. When Sukeroku runs into his childhood friend Taro, now serving as a town policeman, they ponder the impropriety of an officer and a yakuza being friends. Sukeroku tries to prove that he's not such a bad guy by showing Taro his sword, which is so old and rusty that it's nearly impossible to pull out of its sheath. Clearly Sukeroku has made his living with his wits rather than his combat skills.

When Taro mentions that some samurai are in town pursuing a vendetta, Sukeroku seeks them out to make a pitch for his services, but the dead-serious samurai basically ignore him like a buzzing gnat. Instead Sukeroku ends up crossing paths with the old swordsman Katakura who is the target of their vengeance. Sukeroku finds sympathy for the old guy and decides, for a change, to lend his support to the revenge-ee rather than the revenger. But Katakura refuses to accept his aid and goes off to face his battle alone. The surprise that's not really a surprise (so I don't mind spoiling it) is that Katakura is actually Sukeroku's long-lost father. The newfound relationship drives Sukeroku to sharpen up his rusted old sword and swing into decisive action for himself instead of being just a hired hand.

Katakura is played by the venerable Tatsuya Nakadai, making this a glorious final reunion of the actor/director team from The Sword of Doom and Kill! The weight of his presence is what elevates Vengeance for Sale above the level of lightweight farce and gives the movie real resonance. What an antidote to Nakadai's career of homicidal monsters to see him as a worn-out but honorable old warrior determined to go down fighting, even it requires tying his sword to his palsied hand to maintain his grip on the hilt.

Hiroyuki Sanada does a fine job balancing the comic goofiness of Sukeroku with his underlying humanity. Considering the contrast between this role and his moving dramatic performance in The Twilight Samurai, Sanada perhaps has the potential to follow in Nakadai's footsteps as the versatile go-to actor for a new generation of chambara.

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema