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October 11, 2010

Samurai Vendetta

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Kazuo Mori - 1959
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

The original title, Hakuoki translates as "Chronicle of Cherry Blossoms". It is a more accurate title than Samurai Vendetta which suggests a film with more swordplay. Not that there isn't any of this type of action, but the heart of the film is mostly concerned with the overcomplicated and sometimes contradictory rules of samurai life at the beginning of the 18th Century. The film is about lives so formalized that by the end of the film there is no question as to why Shintaro Katsu's character prefers to be a ronin, a masterless samurai, rather than accept one of several invitations to be part of a clan.

The supreme example of samurai code of honor has been The 47 Ronin, a story filmed multiple times with differing emphasis and interpretations. Samurai Vendetta takes two of the samurai from The 47 Ronin, and makes them the main characters, in a narrative taking place prior to the classic story. Katsu and Raizo Ichikawa are members of rival clans, who also find themselves rivals in love. Even though Katsu's relationship with Chitose Maki remains that of a courtly gentleman, before and after Maki marries Ishikawa, it becomes the subject of rumor primarily stoked in order to create a confrontation between the two men. The personal loyalty of the three main characters remains consistent in spite of the outside forces, including not only the rules of conduct but how those rules are perceived by others.

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One scene that show the absurdity of Shogun law involves the treatment of animals. People flee in a panic when a lone dog is on the loose in the streets. Dogs were protected from any kind of harm that they are known as "Noble Dogs". Kazuo Mori cuts from the main story to depict men hung upside down and beaten, crucified and beheaded for their treatment of dogs. The unintended consequence of such a law causes Chitose Maki to find herself attacked by several dogs without the legal means of defending herself. That such a law exists is less surprising in an environment regarding all aspects of life, with a convoluted class structure. That wild dogs can run free serves as a reminder of the basic set up for The 47 Ronin where rank allows abusive behavior without legal recourse.

The casting of the lead players seems to reflect some odd decision making at Daiei Studios. Raizo Ichikawa was called the "James Dean of Japan", and had obvious, matinee idol good looks. Although he didn't have as big a range of type of films at Daiei, Ichikawa was probably seen as that studios equivalent to Toho's tall, brooding and equally young Tatsuya Nakadai. Shintaro Katsu was never conventionally handsome, yet someone at Daiei tried to make him a star. It wasn't until a year later, playing the conniving blind masseuse, and soon after that, the iconic Zatoichi, that Katsu achieved genuine popularity, based on his acting ability, and a face more suitable for a character actor than a romantic lead. Is there more to Chitose Maki than this entry at IMDb? Maki's filmography suggests that someone at Daiei had high hopes for this actress to begin with before letting the contract lapse with smaller roles.

Kazuo Mori uses a few stylistic flourishes of interest. A couple of times a split screen is used, with one shot wiping away the other. There's an artificiality of some of the lighting, exteriors being shot within the studio with dramatically colored cycloramas providing the backdrop. In one scene, Raizo Ishikawa allows himself to be cut by his sword wielding brother-in-law. In a close-up of the wounded Ishikawa, the color shifts to purple. One of the duels is filmed like a Busby Berkeley musical with the camera providing a bird's eye view of the action. It may strain credulity to see a one armed, immobile, samurai fight a gang while lying in the snow, but that's exactly what happens here. Samurai Vendetta suggests that just when you think you've seen almost everything possible in a samurai film, you find out you haven't.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 11, 2010 06:42 AM


Helpful blog, bookmarked the website with hopes to read more!

Posted by: roclafamilia at October 21, 2010 08:43 AM