This lesser-known entry in the samurai film canon will be of great interest to Kurosawa fans. Vendetta of Samurai (Araki Mataemon: Ketto kagiya no tsuji, 1952) features four of the seven samurai from Seven Samurai (Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Daisuke Kato and Minoru Chiaki), as well as rubber-faced old farmer Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari). Vendetta relates the true story of a meticulously planned ambush and attack upon a mounted party protecting a murderer.
Leading the revenge is Mataemon (Mifune), a sword instructor and brother-in-law to young Kazuma (Akihiko Katayama) whose brother was recently slain by fellow clansman Matagoro (Chiaki). Mataemon and Kazuma are joined by chubby old Buemon (Toranosuke Ogawa) and chubby young Rokusuke (Daisuke Kato), forming a four-man vendetta squad. (Sorry, I realize that's a lot of names to throw at you, but not nearly as many as come flying at you in the film itself!)
Anyhow, the whole gimmick of the film, and it's a good one, is to show you what such an event must have really been like, in contradistinction to the legendary battle it became over time (in which Mataemon supposedly slew some 36 men). The opening of the film portrays just such a battle, a kabuki moment of sheer fantasy in which we see Mifune, Shimura and others covered in make-up, Mifune practically doing pirouettes as he slashes attackers left and right. I couldn't believe what I was seeing; I'm well acquainted with the work of director Kazuo Mori, and such corny, stagey samurai foppery was completely incongruous with his style. Then the voiceover explained things: This is how this famous incident is traditionally portrayed, whereas the film we're about to see is the real deal, how things really happened. I appreciate what the film sets out to accomplish, and consider it largely a success. There are moments of tedium, but I understand they're deliberate, in service to the realism of an actual ambush -- there's bound to be longueurs, no getting around it.
Vendetta was a Toho production, although Kazuo Mori is better known for his work at Daiei, helming scores of films throughout the 50s and 60s including a number of Zatoichis and Nemuri Kyoshiros. Of the films of his I've seen, my favorite is probably The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (Zoku Zatoichi monogatari, 1962), starring Shintaro Katsu and Tomisaburo Wakayama.
Vendetta of Samurai is an eye-opening look at what really happens when frightened men with big swords find themselves up against it. Some find courage, others lose heart, and some will invariably lose their lives. This is one film that tells it like it is and doesn't sugar coat the stark realities.
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