Running time: 104 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Honour, unquestioning loyalty to one's master, severe austerity and meditation on death -- these are some of the keystones of the samurai philosophy of bushido. For centuries bushido was held up as the ideal of behaviour for all well-born Japanese, but looking at the history of Japanese cinema one has to question if bushido was something best left to being just an ideal rather than a model for daily life. In film after film we are shown how bushido could just as easily be the cause of defamation, destitution and death as it could be for elevation. The umpteenth screen adaptations of Japan's national epic, the Chushingura or The Loyal 47 Ronin, we're shown how a group of 18th-century samurai had to break the rules of bushido in order to uphold the honour of their master, Lord Asano. All 47 of them paid the price for their transgression with their lives. In Buntaro Futagawa's 1925 film "Orochi" Japan's first screen superstar Tsumasaburo Bando portrayed a samurai who found himself branded an outlaw after he adhered too strictly to the ideals of bushido. Veteran actor Tatsuya Nakadai has played both a ronin who must expose the hypocrisy of the samurai class in Masaki Kobayashi's "Harakiri" and a samurai whose adherence to the code of bushido has caused him to develop a frightening god complex in Kihachi Okamoto's "Sword of Doom". Yet another example of the pitfalls of bushido comes to us in the form of Tadashi Imai's 1964 film "Revenge", recently released on DVD by North Carolina-based company AnimEigo.
Kinnosuke Nakamura (Goyokin, Incident at Blood Pass) stars as Ezaki Shinpachi, a low-ranking samurai who one day makes a breach in protocol that will change his life forever. Okuno Magodayu, head of the influential Okuna clan, makes an offhand insult and Shinpachi calls him on it. Offended by his presumption Magodayu challenges him to an illegal duel. Stupidly (or honourably, depending on your point of view) Shinpachi accepts and ultimately kills Magodayu. The problem now is that the stability of the Okuna territory has been severely damaged. To prevent even more bloodshed the chancellor of the Okuna declares that both Shinpachi and Magodayu were insane at the time of the duel. For his crimes Shinpachi will be exiled to a local Buddhist temple and branded a madman, which is certainly not the case... at least not right away. Not only are the Okuna clan, now headed up by Magodayu's bother Shume (portrayed by Tetsuro Tamba), furious with Shinpachi, but so are a number of their allies. When Shume goes to the temple to avenge his brother's death Shinpachi does the only thing he knows to do -- defend himself -- and in doing so he ends up killing Shume as well. A bad situation has just gotten a thousand times worse, and with nothing but time to sit around the temple and mull over his fate Shinpachi really does begin to lose his grip on sanity. He is finally tipped over the edge when he learns that he has been ordered to fight Tatsunosuke Okune, the youngest of the Okune brothers, to the death. The problem here is that Shinpachi and Tatsunosuke are old friends. The rules of bushido, tempered by local politics, have taken an honourable man and driven him to the edge of madness.
As opposed to jidai-geki and chanbara directors like Hideo Gosha and Hiroshi Inagaki, Tadashi Imai is not as well known in North America, but the man who scripted "Revenge" is. Shinobu Hashimoto is the man who penned the Akira Kurosawa classic "Rashomon", and with "Revenge" he attempts a little of what he achieved with this landmark film. The story of Shinpachi's fall from grace and slow mental undoing is told through flashbacks and flash forwards, mirroring the fractured narrative of "Rashomon". Director Imai is no Kurosawa though, so despite the intriguing ideas of personal integrity vs. samurai honour and sanctioned "insanity" vs. personal responsibility, viewers may find themselves a little lost at times throughout the film. Political maneuvering and bloodthirsty power struggles can be snakey enough, so to have "Revenge" told in a non-linear fashion may not always be the best idea. One thing that Shinobu and Imai know without question, though, is that what's needed to hold a story of this complexity together is a fascinating protagonist portrayed by a skilled and charismatic actor. Kinnosuke Nakamura fits this bill perfectly.
Born into the venerable Nakamura family of kabuki actors, Kinnosuke Nakamura understood the importance of physicality and raw emotion in a performance. He was a powerful presence on screen throughout his 40-plus year film career, but his turn as Ezaki Shinpachi may be one of his most powerful. Any actor revels in the prospect of playing a madman, but Nakamura makes us understand the pride, ferocity and naïveté of Shinpachi before we see him lose his mind entirely. Shinpachi, like so many other examples of conflicted cinematic samurai, is a good man whose mind and spirit has been short circuited by the stifling strictures of the bushido code. During the climactic duel between Shinpachi and Tatsunosuke we see Nakamura unleash his basest instincts, howling like an animal as he faces his opponents, not a noble samurai engaged in a show of great swordsmanship, but a man slashing the air between himself and his enemies in a desperate bid to save his life. This final scene erases whatever narrative shortcomings that came before it and makes Tadashi Imai's "Revenge" a film for samurai enthusiasts to put on their must-see list.