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May 17, 2011

Revenge (1964)

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Tadashi Imai - 1964
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Even if his character was not declared insane by the ruling council, there would always be something about Kinnosuke Nakamura that appeared deranged. Definitely the eyes that appear ready to bulge out, darting about, ready to spy upon a real or imagined enemy. There is also something a bit off-kilter about Nakamura's mouth. When Nakamura really goes crazy at the end, there's really no surprise.

I had only come across the Japanese term "zankoku jidaigeki" which translates as "cruel historicals" in a discussion about the original 13 Assassins from 1963. The genre was associated with Toei Studios which also produced Revenge. as well as Imai's previous Bushido - The Cruel Code of the Samurai. There is a sense of continuity that the same studio that would produce films that questioned the samurai code would eventually become the studio most identified with the yakuza films of the 70s.

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Those assuming that there would be lots of action to savor based on the titles would be sorely disappointed. Imai, who liked to overturn audience expectations, is not only criticizing the samurai code but also the spectacle of violence. Taking place in 18th Century Japan, the film opens with workers building a temporary outdoor arena, based on very specific rules regarding size and positioning of the audience, to be used for a duel. Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that this duel is the result of the youngest brother of a high class family seeking officially sanctioned revenge against the lowly samurai who killed his two older brothers. What began as a fight over an insult escalates to a series of private and public duels that involves several clans.

If there was ever a screenplay writer who loves flashbacks, it was Shinobu Hashimoto. Best known for his work with Akira Kurosawa, Hashimoto makes the narrative a bit more difficult to follow than necessary. The humanistic impulses that are usually found in the films he's written are found here, especially at the end, but the jumps between past and present were a bit harder to follow than in such films as Ikiru or his work for Yoshitaro Nomura, Zero Focus and Castle of Sand.

Eschewing action for the most part, Imai is more interested in contemplating the arcane rules that governed the samurai classes. Everything is based on established rules, and the disruption of those rules create unexpected ripples. The moral quandary that the characters find themselves in would make this film similar to watching a game of chess, where every move needs to be thought out not only for its immediate outcome but in anticipation of countermoves.

Even though he's second billed, that seemingly ubiquitous star of Japanese films of the 60s and 70s, Tetsuro Tamba, appears in a glorified supporting role as one of the brothers looking to put Kinnosuke Nakamura in his place. The cinematography, lighting and framing, are unarguably beautiful, emphasizing through visual formality the life of formality of the film's characters.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 17, 2011 08:09 AM