Director - Tadashi Imai
Cast - Kinnosuke Nakamura, Yoshiko Mita, Eitaro Shindo
Country of Origin - Japan
Discs - 1
Distributor - Animeigo
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
The Film: 4/5
The year is 1722 and the place is Japan during the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. When Okuno Magodayu, a respected, high-ranking samurai warrior from a prominent clan, makes an offhanded remark about the cleanliness of spears lowlier and more impulsive samurai Ezaki Shinpachi (Kinnosuke Nakamura) disregards the code of the Bushido and returns the insult. Magodayu is insulted and challenges Shinpachi to a private duel along a river bank, which is illegal unless properly sanctioned by the government. Shinpachi wins the duel and kills Magodayu but when news of the duel reaches the houses of the two samurai they both agree to declare the combatants insane and exile Shinpachi to a remote Buddhist temple in order to protect the honor and reputation of both clans. Shinpachi, who was never satisfied being born into a samurai clan to begin with, enjoys his exile until Magodayu’s younger brother Shume goes against his family’s attempts to cover the killing up and seeks out Shinpachi to exact revenge. Ultimately Shinpachi reluctantly must return home in order to battle Magodayu’s youngest brother - and Shinpachi’s former friend - Tatsunosuke (Tetsuro Tanba) in a public duel whose outcome will settle the matter once and for all and restore honor to the warring clans, but may cost Shinpachi his sanity as well as his life.
Having seen my fair share of samurai movies Tadashi Imai’s little-known - at least in this country - drama Revenge came as a very pleasant surprise. I had long grown accustomed to Akira Kurosawa’s sword-slashing epics of honor and battle and the enduring image of the samurai warrior as a figure of great moral and physical strength seared into the public’s pop culture consciousness over the decades, culminating in Jim Jarmusch’s urban gangster-samurai epic Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. The samurai iconography has been embraced by both rappers and industry power brokers, but Revenge invites us to look beyond the popular images and the well-worn mythology of the samurai to see that any way of life, no matter how Spartan and honorable it may seems, can still be rife with corruption and hypocrisy.
Imai’s ace in the hole is the screenplay, and for a very good reason. The writer is none other than Shinobu Hashimoto. If that name doesn’t strike you as familiar then maybe his credits will: Rashomon, Ikiru, The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, and The Bad Sleep Well. That’s just for starters. In addition to scripting just about every classic Kurosawa made in the 1950’s Hashimoto also wrote such classics of samurai cinemas as The Sword of Doom and Harakiri. He’s probably the writer with the most films released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, and that’s an accomplishment not to be taken lightly. Hashimoto structures his story around the build-up to the public duel between Shinpachi and Tatsunosuke by using the scenes surrounding the duel preparations as a framing device for the real meat of the narrative. Sometimes the transitioning between past and present scenes can be jarring but for the most part it proves to be highly effective in conveying the events that led to the cruel spectacle we are to witness in the final act. Imai shot the film in brooding, inky black & white through the camera lens of Shunichiro Nakao, one of the great, unsung cinematographers of Japanese film. This is a perfect choice as color photography would have provided a distraction from the character-driven conflicts in Hashimoto’s script. Plus the cinematography is strikingly beautiful.
The sword battles in the film are appropriately lacking in stylistic choreography, driven instead by desperation, savagery, and the desire to preserve life over maintaining honor. Imai and Hashimoto added some interesting and amusing details to the story, my personal favorite being how they designed the final duel to resemble a modern sporting event. I’m no student of Japanese history so if public duels during the 18th century really had concession stands and a special arena for the combatants complete with a corner for each participant with chairs and bowls of rice then I am even more amazed. The performances in Revenge are across-the-board excellent, but it is Kinnosuke Nakamura who gives the stand-out performance as the unfortunate Shinpachi. Nakamura excels at conveying the fear and pathos in a character that most films would portray as weak and ineffective. Nakamura is clearly unhappy being a samurai, doing it mostly to be a loyal and dutiful son but unable to understand the laws of his clan even though he respects the code of the Bushido. You never lose sympathy for the character even as he seems to be heading for his breaking point thanks to Nakamura’s haunted performance. Before his death on March 10, 1997 (my 18th birthday, oddly enough) Nakamura starred in many more samurai features and on a television series adaptation of the popular manga Lone Wolf & Cub, though he would not participate in the Lone Wolf films - two of which were edited together and released in the U.S. by New World Pictures in 1980 as Shogun Assassin.
Animeigo’s 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is simply amazing. They have really granted the first class treatment to what is - at least in the U.S. - a rather obscure title. Shunichiro Nakao’s shadowy black & white cinematography is meticulously preserved with a modicum of grain and noise reduction. Also deserving of special merit is the unobtrusive Japanese 2.0 audio track, rich in bolstered music and Foley effects. The DVD comes with two sets of full and limited English subtitles, both presented in colors of white and yellow: the limited option only gives you the translated dialogue but if you select the full option not only do you get that but also the translations of signs as well as cultural explanations. In a way the full subtitle option also functions as a visual commentary. This is the option I would happily recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Japanese cinema and samurai culture.
The scant few extras provided by Animeigo for Revenge consist of program notes with background information about the movie and the era of Japanese history the story explores, text biographies of director Imai and actors Nakamura and Shindo, and an image gallery - all presented in slideshow format. Trailers for Miyamoto Musashi and The Secret of the Urn round out the set.
Revenge proved to be a pleasant surprise. I’ve seen my share of samurai movies in the past but never one like this. Imai’s film turns the sub-genre over like a rock and invites you to take a glimpse at the moral and intellectual decay that festers beneath the surface of the time-honored samurai code. Animeigo’s stunning restoration of this underrated minor masterpiece of Japanese cinema - not to mention that badass cover art - is more than reason enough to give Revenge a watch. This movie is outstanding entertainment, a thinking person‘s action film.