Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Duel With No Winner-Animeigo’s “Revenge”

One would think a formal duel to settle a grudge between armed samurai would be pretty straightforward. Two men meet on the ‘field of honor’ in a fair fight with one emerging victorious-and the other dead. However, things don’t always work out this way in the world of chanbara. The particular duel we’ll be examining today features only a pile of corpses with no real winner in sight. A popular Western saying is that when you seek revenge, dig two graves-one for your opponent and one for your soul. Such is the tone of Imai Tadashi’s “Revenge” (Adauchi). This 1964 B/W release from Toei is now available on DVD from Animeigo and features Nakamura Kinnosuke as a character whose life is changed by the machinations of a system seemingly designed to crush the very people that best defend it.

It’s 1720’s Edo period Japan, a score of years after the raid of the 47 Ronin. While the exploits of the Ronin’s ‘feudal drive-by’ have become the stuff of legend, dueling and revenge still tend to be rare in the peaceful world of the Tokugawa. In some fiefs, duels have even been declared illegal by their ruling daimyo and it’s in one of these that Okuno Magodayu and Ezaki Shinpachi are about to have a fateful encounter. While glancing at a smudged weapon blade while passing by a group of the clan lancers, Magodayu makes an offhand remark that implies that they’ve grown lax in their duties. Shinpachi, a samurai who holds no official office and is just there to help out with the weapons, takes offence and subtly suggests that the lancers are in far better shape than the Okuno. Samurai pride being what it is, it isn’t long before Magodayu sends a letter to Shinpachi challenging him to combat at a remote river bed. Shinpachi’s brother Jubei (the head of the Ezaki family) finds the letter and rushes off to stop the illegal duel-but he’s too late. Shinpachi has killed Magodayu, and both clans are in a world of trouble.

Niwa Denbei, chancellor of the Okuno, suggests that perhaps both of the combatants were temporarily insane and that neither can be held responsible for their actions. While this ploy draws the displeasure of both Okuno Shume (who wants revenge on Shinpachi) and Shinpachi (who quite correctly is unhappy about being labeled as insane), it’s the only excuse that will allow both clans to survive. The fabrication is accepted by Chief Inspector Ogawa Kobei and Chief Councilor Katagai Tanomo, even though both realize that it’s untrue. Shinpachi is sent to a local temple to recover from his ‘insanity’, but it’s more along the lines of a ‘cooling-off’ period-it’s understood that with the passage of time he will be forgiven by the clan and allowed to return.

Meanwhile, Shume is fuming under the whispered rumors that he’s too fearful to take revenge for his family. He declares his intention to kill Shinpachi, stating that he’s not breaking the clan’s rules-it won’t be a duel but just the elimination of an insane killer. Shinpachi’s friend Koyama Samon rushes to the temple to warn Shinpachi. A terrified Shinpachi knows that not only is Shume a far better swordsman than he, but even if he wins, it will only make his situation worse. Despite pleas from both the temple Abbot and Samon to take his former betrothed Ritsu and flee the domain, it seems honor is more important to Shinpachi. He stays and in a stroke of incredible good luck manages to kill Shume.

Now the pressure is on both the Ezaki and the Okuno-they had been excused earlier, but the latest killing draws the ire of clan officials. Breaking with tradition, they sanction an official duel. To save his family, Shinpachi is asked to allow the last Okuno brother, his friend Tatsunosuke, to kill him. From here on, Shinpachi is exposed to every type of humiliation possible-even though he has never acted in a dishonorable manner throughout the entire incident. He’s threatened with imprisonment and starvation and pelted with rocks and vegetables by jeering peasants. Even when he resolves himself to purposely lose to Tatsunosuke as requested, the clan decides to change the rules. Will he swallow this final insult or will he strike back at his tormentors? Is there a way for him to emerge victorious?

As examined in our review of “Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai”, director Imai Tadashi was no fan of the samurai ethic and tradition. Rather, he saw the inherent hypocrisy of a theoretical code of conduct that took precedence over common sense and good judgment-not to mention a code that the rich and powerful could bypass at their leisure and warp to their advantage. In many ways, “Revenge” is like an extended vignette left out of the earlier “Bushido”, down to having the same star. The low status of Shinpachi sees him being continually made a scapegoat by the authorities even when he loyally agrees to follow their false decrees, hoping against hope that this will result in his family being unaffected and his own eventual reinstatement. Even his final agreement to let himself be killed at the hands of Tatsunosuke is ignored when it becomes inconvenient for the main clan. Imai also brings home the violence of swordfighting-there are no abstract, choreographed ballet-like moves resulting in bloodless deaths. Instead, there’s chaos, blood, pain, insanity, exhaustion-and ultimately futility. Nothing is resolved as a result. Watching Imai’s jidaigeki efforts always leaves one feeling a bit unclean and questioning the legacy of the samurai-they’re dark masterpieces that contrast greatly with many of the more colorful and traditional films of Japanese cinema in the 60’s. Don’t believe us? Just look at Kinnosuke’s face on the DVD cover. It says it all.

The film is told largely through flashbacks, also much as Imai’s earlier “Bushido” was. However, unlike “Bushido” (where the switch from the modern day to medieval Japan made it easy to spot a transition), “Revenge” takes place in a fairly short period of time. Some viewers find themselves having a hard time keeping track of when the present changes to the past and back again. One thing that will make it easier is that each transition will center around a particular character-when a character’s attire changes suddenly or they are instantly in a different location, it’s a good bet that the time frame has changed. Knowing the three Okuno brothers will help as well-if you see Magodayu, it’s the beginning, Shume is featured in the recent past, and Tatsunosuke largely figures in the present. While it can be somewhat jarring, it also helps add to the picture of random causality and lack of logic that Imai seems to be trying to paint.

We’ve sung the praises of the film’s star, Nakamura Kinnosuke, long and hard here on the Shogun-ki. While this performance isn’t quite up to the standard of his other roles in “Bushido”, “Miyamoto Musashi”, and “Secret of the Urn”, it’s still a cut above that which most any other actor would have been capable of. Some of this stems from the fact that Kinnosuke’s character of Shinpachi is somewhat sketchy. He’s not given much background and displays some puzzling, seemingly unmotivated attitude shifts during the course of the film. Kinnosuke does do an excellent job of portraying the character’s essential confusion and barely contained rage at the decisions made by others that destroy his life. No one does crazy quite like Kinnosuke, and his performance during the final duel more than makes up for whatever shortcomings that might have preceded it.

We found that the performance of the Abbot (never given a name) featured the best job of acting. He stands between the repressed, duty bound world of the samurai and that of the peasants who see the duel as nothing more than a spectacle to be enjoyed and profited from. He’s virtually the only character in the film that displays common sense and a good perspective on life. While he’s not above drinking and ‘bringing the love of Buddha’ to the local widows (in a role that would have been perfect for Brick McBurly), he’s tireless in his efforts to drag Shinpachi from the whirlpool dragging him down. Watching him trying to set Shinpachi and Ritsu on the road to freedom while good naturedly complaining about them the whole time gives the film most of its few moments of lightheartedness. The actor portraying Ezaki Jubei is also excellent, convincingly torn between his duty to preserve his family and his love for his brother Shinpachi. In the final analysis, a heartbroken Jubei manages to do both.

The film’s highpoint is of the course the extended formal duel between Shinpachi and Tatsunosuke at the end-the same duel that preparations are being made for at the beginning. Of course, it becomes obvious early on that Shinpachi will be fighting everyone BUT Tatsunosuke-the one man he had agreed to willingly give up his life to. This underhanded move sets up one of the greatest sword fights in chanbara history, perhaps only eclipsed by Raizo Ichikawa in “The Betrayal”. The Okuno’s choreographed fight strategy (strangely echoing what would be seen on the set of any chanbara film during rehearsals) is quickly laid to waste. While Shinpachi seems doomed to failure against the combined swordsmen of the clan, he doggedly fights on and even expands the focus of the fighting, terrifying his foes and scattering them in his wake. It’s unclear up until the final moment whether his unorthodox strategy will pay off.

Of note is the resume of “Revenge’s” screenwriter, Hashimoto Shinobu. He was a collaborator of Kurosawa Akira and penned many jidaigeki classics such as “Seven Samurai” and “Rashomon”. His skeptical views of warrior culture expressed in those classics lent itself well to both the subject matter of this film and Imai’s views and directorial style.

Animeigo’s extras are a bit on the light side this time around. There are a couple of program notes, not the elaborate ones seen in past releases, and they’re a bit off the mark. They call Shinpachi’s adopted unit ‘dragoons’ and give background for that type of troop. However, Japanese warfare did not have a history or tradition of firearms being used from horseback during the samurai era-they’d be better off being called ‘lancers’. There are short bios for star Kinnosuke, director Imai, and screenwriter Hashimoto. There are trailers for “Miyamoto Musashi” and “The Secret of the Urn”. Strangely, there isn’t a trailer for “Revenge”-one can only assume that it no longer exists. It’s also strange that the trailer for “Bushido” wasn’t included given Imai’s and Nakamura’s involvement. The image gallery does have more stills than is normally the case, around 40 including the film’s release posters. Menus are non-animated with no music. Both picture quality and sound are great and as always the translation and subtitles are the best in the business.

Regardless of whether Shinpachi emerges victorious, there are no winners in this duel. Everyone involved leaves with their hands-and honor-dirtied. The ones that survive, that is. Bushido is once again shown to be the tail that wags the samurai dog. While the duel has no victors, the film is another winner from Imai and Kinnosuke. You can get “Revenge” directly from Animeigo or from Amazon.

All images copyright and courtesy 1964 Toei Co Ltd.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The 47 Ronin: Feudal Drive-By Of Yore

Andrew Rankin’s book “Seppuku” from Kondansha Publishing reflects the growing trend among serious scholars in the West (following the lead of the work Japanese scholars have been doing for quite a few years) to strip away the veneer of legends connected with the 47 Ronin and instead concentrate on what actually happened. As he puts it, “The Ako Incident is widely believed to embody moral conundrums that are quintessentially Japanese. It is perhaps more accurate to say that the whole affair now comprises the sum of three centuries of scholarly commentary and fictional embellishment, having absorbed a plethora of nuances and complexities that were tagged on post factum”. While ‘modern sammyrai’ still continue their campaigns of obfuscation and denial in support of the idealized image of the Ako Ronin, the picture that emerges seems to be that the Ronin were little different from a street gang carrying out a feudal drive-by. Let’s look at some of the more interesting sections of Rankin’s “The Ako Incident” in “Seppuku”.

Asano Naganori, who is usually portrayed as a noble, incorruptible, and perfect samurai, is shown as being “little more than a pleasure-seeking playboy who left administrative matters firmly in the hands of his advisors”. Similar to this is the description of the leader of the 47 Ronin, Asano’s chief councilor Oishi Yoshio/Kuranosuke. “Today an untouchable hero, he was not always known for brilliance. As a young administrator he was nicknamed ‘daytime lantern’ (hiru-andon); in other words, he was useless. He was not good with money, and needed assistance from senior retainers when handling anything financial. His first talent seems to have been for heavy drinking”. And what of the hapless Kira Yoshihisa? “The fact is that no concrete evidence exists (that Kira demanded bribes from Asano or taunted him)”. Rankin describes Asano’s botched assault on Kira, deriding it as “a lame effort” and notes that “Attacking a man twice his age, from the rear, and with the advantage of total surprise, Asano inflicted nothing more than two minor flesh wounds”. Further interesting points include that fact that Asano was escorted out of Edo Castle through an ‘impure’ exit reserved for corpses and criminals and was further shown contempt by having to commit seppuku in a garden rather than in the grand chamber appropriate to his status as a daimyo.

Rankin examines the aftermath of the assault where the bickering between different factions of the Ronin took center stage, with many of the group that had pledged to avenge themselves on Kira deserting as “their passion for vengeance waned”. At one point the Ronin were close to abandoning the attack on Kira and instead proposed substituting his son as the target of their wrath. Examining their motives, it’s shown that “the Ako men were not driven by personal devotion (to Asano). Some of them had never spoken a word to Lord Asano…Their loyalty was not to Asano personally, but to the warrior code….If the incident reveals anything timelessly Japanese, it is this heavy emphasis on the need to save face, a need defined by the status of the men as samurai, rather than on their moral obligations as individuals”. In other words, the Ako Ronin did it because they didn’t like being ‘dissed’. Oishi’s celebrated debauchery before the assault is shown for what it is: “When not plotting murderous revenge, Kuranosuke would head for the pleasure quarters and drown himself in drink. His behavior has been explained as a ruse to throw Kira’s spies off the scent. But Kuranosuke had a reputation as a drinker long before the Ako Incident, and there seems no reason to doubt that he was simply making the most of his last few months on earth”. Ako ronin Fuwa Kuzuemon, who won fame for striking down five servants during the raid, comes off as little more than a psychotic killer. He was banished from Ako by Asano for practicing tsuji-giri. What was tsuji-giri? “Random nighttime attacks on pedestrians”. Yes, Kuzuemon was in the habit of thrill-killing innocent civilians. Fuwa was also noted for being a “Kabuki-mono”, elements of the samurai class that dressed up in “gaudy kimonos” and engaged in “wild antics”. He requested permission to take part in the raid not because he had a special attachment to Asano, but basically because he was looking for a fight. While the Ronin lied to Shogunate inspectors and told them they had killed Kira with a single spear strike, a letter from Fuwa stated that “all the ronin present had stabbed and hacked Kira until he was dead. They sawed off his head…”.

Perhaps more surprising than any of this was the fact that, despite what almost everyone has accepted as fact over the years, the Ronin did NOT commit seppuku. Instead, each of them (save one, Hazama Roku) was beheaded in a mock seppuku ceremony. There are unambiguous contemporary accounts from each of the four houses that were responsible for holding the imprisoned ronin that this was the case. Rankin’s account finishes up by listing accounts from several contemporaries of the Ronin who criticized their actions, with well known scholars such as Sato Naokata lambasting them with “To give themselves up and wait for the Shogun’s ruling was nothing but a scheme to escape death and bask for a while in their own glory, before finding themselves new employment”. While all of this information might seem a bit harsh, Rankin’s account is fair, balanced, and backed up by documentation. He relates the disgrace of Kira as a result of his cowardice during the attack, the efficient way in which the Ronin planned and carried out the raid, and some touching stories involving several of the Ronin wracked by doubt and conflicting loyalties. This probably ranks as the best short account of the 47 Ronin incident available to date in English.

The only criticism we would level at this chapter would be that the author, while correctly stating the number of personnel in the Kira mansion at the time of the raid, has incorrectly ascribed them all the status of samurai guards. In fact, of the 45-50 personnel in Kira’s mansion, only three to five (depending on which account you choose to believe) were samurai guards with the rest being unarmed household staff (whom the Ronin evidently had no qualms about killing). For example, Rankin states “Guards at the front and rear gates were easily overpowered” when letters written by the ronin during their imprisonment establish that household servants were manning the front and rear gates (and both were asleep at that), the armed samurai having retired for the evening. Surviving bakufu records establish that all but perhaps five of the dead and wounded were servants. Simple math shows that Kira’s modest stipend could not have supported more than a handful of guards-contrary to how he is popularly depicted, he was not a wealthy man. The lack of guards at the Kira estate is further established by the imbalance of casualties-the Ronin suffered only one combat casualty (one wounded, with another Ronin being wounded after taking a pratfall) while Kira’s household suffered 16 dead and 21 wounded with the reminder fleeing the scene. The Ronin were not noted for their swordsmanship (something even their own museum in Ako freely admits), so such a lopsided tally can only be explained away by the fact that they largely were facing terrified unarmed servants. Popular support for the Ronin also seems to be overestimated by Rankin, as according to research done by Henry Smith (the West’s leading authority on the Ronin) Asano’s assault on Kira went largely unnoticed among both members of the samurai class as well as commoners, and was regarded as a minor incident by those who did comment on it. It wasn’t until the plays and novels based on the Ronin’s assault began to appear that public support for the Ronin started to manifest itself.

Still, one has to be encouraged by this development. While no doubt the upcoming Hollywood remake of the 47 Ronin legend with Keanu Reeves will ignite a whole new round of Ronin worship, it’s only a matter of time before the accepted view of the Ako Incident relegates it to the status of the feudal drive-by of yore.