Two figures swept up in the tide of honorable vengeance
“Samurai Vendetta” (Japanese title “Hakuoki” or “The Record of Light Cherry Blossoms”) is a good film, but one with a somewhat high bar of entry. Imagine popping in a flick called “The Adventures of Little John and Will Scarlet” without having ever heard of Robin Hood. Or think of a movie called “The Woes of Wedge Antilles” and how entertaining it would be to someone who isn’t intimately familiar with “Star Wars.” Or even showing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead to someone who has never heard of Hamlet.
Because that is basically what “Samurai Vendetta” is all about. The tale of two minor characters swept up in a famous story.
The saga of the 47 Ronin has often been called THE Japanese story. There are a multitude of filmed versions, and the story is re-made anew for every generation. You would be hard pressed to find someone in Japan who was not at least a bit familiar with the basic details. Filmmakers have long sought out fresh stories set against the back-drop of the famous. Because the story is so well-known, they don’t feel the need to give all the details of what is going on, and expect the viewers to fill in the background details with their own knowledge. Animeigo is up-front about this, and one of the first things you will see is a warning that you should watch a few versions of 47 Ronin before watching “Samurai Vendetta.”
In “Samurai Vendetta,” the two minor characters are Nakayama Yasubei (Katsu Shintaro, Zatoichi) and Tange Tenzen (Ichikawa Raizo, Shinobi No Mono). Both are samurai of considerable talent, who respect and like each other but seem to find themselves continually on opposing sides in conflicts. First, Nakayama’s sword fighting school gets into a rivalry with Tenge’s school, and both are expelled as a consequence of Tenge helping Nakayama with a loose belt before the battle. Next, the two men find themselves in love with the same woman. But these petty rivalries they could overlook due to their mutual respect. The conflict of lord verses lord is something they cannot stand aside on. Tenge stands in the service of Lord Kira, while Yasubei joins the 47 Ronin in seeking their vengeance.
The film is directed by Mori Kazuo (who would go on to direct both Katsu and Ichikawa in their respective Zatoichi and Shinobi no Mono series) and carries many of the hallmarks that would appear in his later films. Two warriors meet, become friends, until circumstances set them on opposite sides of a battle. It is a classic story, given weight by the background of the 47 Ronin story. Anyone expecting an action film will be disappointed. Like most films of this genre, the main battles are inner, as the two friends struggle with the conflicts between their emotions and their duty. For every ten minutes of swordplay there is twenty-five minutes of talking and dwelling on fate.
I personally very much enjoyed “Samurai Vendetta.” I am familiar enough with the story of the 47 Ronin that I liked seeing two of the minor characters plucked from the mass of clashing warriors, and having their story told. It puts a personal spin on two otherwise faceless warriors. But I can see how it would be dreary to someone coming to the film cold. If you want to get the most out of this, you are going to have to do your homework.
Interestingly enough, although the Katsu/Ichikawa match-up seems like a clash of the titans, “Samurai Vendetta” was made before either of those two would star in the roles that made them household words. Even though this is a color film, “Samurai Vendetta” is from 1959, with the first “Zatoichi” and “Shinobi no Mono” films appearing in 1962.