Sunday, October 17, 2010

One Arm, One Leg, Two Legends-Animeigo's "Samurai Vendetta"

The story of the 47 Ronin is perhaps the most popular subject for Japanese literature, and almost as popular are the various 'gaiden' dealing with the various members of the group. 'Gaiden' means 'side story' and in this case the efforts of novelists and kabuki playwrights who fictionalized the lives of the Ronin leading up to the assault (and the time after it as well). This applies to Japanese cinema as well-there are dozens, if not hundreds, of 47 Ronin efforts and many of them are gaiden-for example, the excellent 1994 "Chushingura Gaiden Yotsuya Yaidan" that combines the world of the fictional Ronin with the famous "Ghost Of Yotsuya" story. Another would be the film being examined today-Animeigo's DVD release of 1959's "Samurai Vendetta" (Japanese title 'Hakuoki'**, "A Chronicle Of Pale Cherry Blossoms"). Taken from a story by noted novelist Gomi Kosuke, it combines the 47 Ronin with elements of the Tange Sazen story. It also stars two of chanbara's biggest headliners-Ichikawa Raizo and Katsu Shintaro (not to mention one of our favorites, character actor Date Saburo, as one of the film's rotten apples). As a bonus, you'll even get to watch Raizo play virtually two characters-respected Shogunate Inspector and swordmaster Tange Tenzen and the one armed (and later one legged) scruffy ronin Tange Tenzen. Along with Katsu's portrayal of 47 Ronin swordsman Horibe Yasubei, this gives the film one arm, one leg, and two chanbara legends in one of their better films together.

Nakayama Yasubei's not having a good day-he's just found out his uncle has been challenged to a group duel by a rival sword school, and the fight is already underway. Yasubei is hauling ass to the duel when he comes across the procession of Shogunal Inspector Tange Tenzen. Apologizing to Tenzen and requesting an emergency right of way, Yasubei is chugging past the procession when Tenzen notices that the cord Yasubei's used to tie back his loose sleeves is of poor quality, putting him in potential danger. Tenzen attempts to stop Yasubei but the flustered swordsman doesn't understand and continues on his way. Yasubei manages to make it to the fight just in time, but is indeed put at a disadvantage when the cord unravels. A samurai from the crowd throws him a makeshift cord made from his daughter's sash. A concerned Tenzen has followed Yasubei to render aid but seeing that he needs none (and that the enemies are from the same school he trains at), takes his leave. The heavily outnumbered Yasubei manages to clean house and in the process becomes wildly popular in Edo, with crowds of girls following him around and offers of employment from respected daimyo houses being extended.

Meanwhile, the duel has had repercussions for Tenzen-he has been spotted at the fight by other members of his dojo and is accused of being a coward by his fellow students. The accusations fly (after all, why didn't the men who reported Tenzen charge in to save their comrades?) and the situation only defuses when Tenzen is exiled from the dojo. As the master does so to indicate to the opposing school he desires peace, Yasubei's sensei follows suit, exiling him as well. The two cross paths again shortly after this, when Yasubei bails Tenzen out of a tight situation involving an 'honorable dog'. During Shogun Tsunayoshi's reign, dogs and other animals were protected against harm by his 'Laws of Compassion', and killing a dog usually meant death for the offender. Tenzen inadvertently kills one when his sword scabbard breaks as he attempts to defend his bride-to-be Chiharu from a pack of dogs (this scene is hilarious, as it appears dogs are being thrown by stagehands at Raizo from offscreen). Yasubei performs a Noh dance to defuse the suspicions of the 'Dog Hut' patrol (yes, really) and disposes of the carcass. Later, Tenzen returns the favor by stepping in for Yasubei to fight several members of his former sword school that are out looking for revenge. He disfigures five of their number, and the 'five bastards' are now sworn enemies of both men.

Yasubei, not knowing of Chiharu's impending marriage, decides to join the Nagao clan (a vassal of the Uesugi and family to Lord Kira) in order to cozy up to her-but ends up joining the Asano clan as a booby prize when he finds that she has been given to Tenzen. Yasubei is adopted by the samurai who supplied him with a 'sword cord' in the initial fight, changes his family name to Horibe, and is betrothed to the family's 13 year old daughter. Everyone seems content at this point, but it's not to last-the 'five bastards' break into Tenzen's home while he's away, have his wife drugged, and gang rape her. To add further insult, they spread rumors that Chiharu has also been unfaithful with Yasubei in an effort to provoke Tenzen into battling him, taking care of at least one of their foes. Tenzen's in a bind-as a samurai, he can't stay with a wife who's been violated even though he loves her and realizes she's not to blame. She can't be simply cast out, as her shame would compel her to commit suicide. He works up a plan worthy of the scammers in "Hana" and manages to clear her name, and divorces her with a clean record-but pays a heavy price as her angry brother lops off his arm from behind. Like another famous Tange of Japanese film (Tange Sazen), Tenzen is now a one armed swordsman-and eventually, one legged as well. How will he ever be able to track down and exact revenge on the 'five bastards'? What role will Yasubei play here, and where do the 47 Ronin enter the picture? Will Yasubei even make it to the raid on Kira's mansion in this version, and will he have to kill the woman he loves to procure information the Ronin need for the raid's success?

Raizo was a well established star by the time this film came out, with Katsu being substantially less so (his big break would come in two more years with "Shiranui Kengyo", another Animeigo release). For audiences used to seeing Raizo in his signature role as Nemuri Kyoshiro in the so-called 'Sleepy Eyes Of Death' series (yes, another Animego release), it'll come as somewhat of a surprise to see him playing a caring, loving and thoughtful husband. Rather than send Chiharu away in shame (and basically sentencing her to suicide), Tenzen bends over backwards to concoct a fairly ridiculous and risky scheme to clear her name, knowing all the while he will have to give her up anyway. Raizo pulls it off, along with Tenzen's conflict over his honor as a samurai versus his love for his wife. While the final extended swordfight between Tenzen and the 'five bastards' (now down to three) with their allies doesn't quite count as the ultimate exercise in exhausted swordfighting (that would go to Raizo's character in "The Betrayal"), it might be a solid second, with Raizo seemingly returning from the dead several times. Katsu makes an impact in his role as Nakayama/Horibe Yasubei (one of the few of the 47 Ronin that possessed a measure of sword skills), approaching it with an intensity, steadfastness, and seriousness that plays well against Raizo's more romantic character. This is a slimmer, younger, and fitter Katsu than the one seen in Zatocihi and Hanzo the Razor, but his swordplay is still among the best of its day. Maki Chitose plays the role of the duo's love interest Chiharu somewhat differently than the typical 'stoic bushi woman' seen in most samurai dramas. While she's certainly not helpless (interposing herself between Tenzen and her brother's follow up sword attack, and then leaving the family and making her own way in the world), Chiharu is the type of woman who will hold extended conversations with her husband's proxy (a small 'doll festival' groom doll she made as a child) while he is away. She's very sweet, feminine and sentimental, the type of woman most men feel drawn to protect-making the assault upon her even more odious. Her and Tange make for a well matched couple, and this gives their final meeting after the climatic battle increased impact.

Director Mori Kazuo is best known for directing Katsu in many of the "Zatoichi" films along with some of the "Shinobi No Mono" films and Zatoichi's 'predecessor', "Shiranui Kengyo". There are some nice directorial touches-the 'bride and groom' dolls made by Chiharu as a child foreshadow and follow many of the events that happen to her and Tenzen. When Tenzen tests his one-armed sword skills by slicing a sheet of paper into fluttering pieces, the scene transitions to fluttering snow. It's a nice touch how Tange's arm being cut off intersects with Asano's assault on Lord Kira in the Shogun's castle (the incident that sparked the 47 Ronin's revenge)-his palanquin is turned away at the gates of the Shogun's castle when he bleeds on the path the Imperial Envoys will be taking to meet with Asano and Kira (mirrored by Asano's crime of spilling blood in the castle). It's also a wonderful ironic touch that Yasubei, who wanted to join the Uesugi (Kira's relatives), instead joins the Asano clan as a second choice, making him Tange's nominal foe in war and romance. Rather than a typical Daiei film, Samurai Vendetta actually looks more like a film produced by Toei Studios, using the brightly colored studio backdrops and stylized swordfighting they were noted for. Even the soundtrack brings to mind Toei's more sentimental and sweeping scores. Many of the scenes appear to be shot on Toei soundstages and sets-it would be interesting to delve into the production history of the film. Since color films were still somewhat uncommon in Japan, it might simply be that the color was accentuated for its novelty value. It works well at times, such as the slow transition of the background from normal daylight to a sickly purple when Tenzen loses his arm to Chiharu's brother.

As goes without saying (but we'll say it anyway), Animeigo provides a stellar translation and English subtitle options for every level of Japanese proficiency from zero to expert. There's the usual package of extras-the film's Japanese trailer, bios of the major players (stars, director, writers), and a large image gallery of both B/W and color images. The program notes are sort of a Jekyll/Hyde situation this time around. They've been split up into program notes on the 47 Ronin (which Animeigo encourages everyone to read to give background on the film) and general cultural/film notes. The notes on the 47 Ronin were unfortunately based on the information found on Wikipedia. Wikipedia's account in turn was largely taken from James Murdoch's 'History Of Japan', a three volume set written in the early 1900's. Murdoch's account of the Ronin was based on oral legend and puppet plays/novels rather than historical fact. Noted Ronin scholar Professor Henry Smith states that "The Murdoch account is no longer of anything but historiographical use". It gives the LEGEND of the 47 Ronin, but NOT the historical facts. Perhaps this works for the disc, since the story is based on the legend, but the notes are not accurate from a historical standpoint. On the other hand, the cultural/film notes given in the second section are excellent-one of the most extensive and involved sets that Animeigo's done to date.

Samurai Vendetta certainly lives up to its name-there are more vendettas here than can be struck down with a katana. Raizo and Katsu are always welcome and any film with both of them more than deserves a look. Carrying through on the popular Japanese theme of two men being linked by fate, it supplies drama, action, and an interesting take on the 47 Ronin story. You can get "Samurai Vendetta" directly from Animeigo or from Amazon through the SA Store. And it won't cost you an arm and a leg to see these two legends of samurai cinema.

**-note this film has NOTHING in common, story or otherwise, with the 'Hakuoki' anime that's currently knocking them dead in Japan

All photos courtesy and copyright 1959 Kadokawa Pictures

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