Criterion: Vendetta of a Samurai (****) – Correcting a history of violence

Vendetta of a Samurai – 1952

Director Kazu Mori
Screenplay Akira Kurosawa
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki

Vendetta of a Samurai is the kind of work that puts a light on legend and finds it wanting for truth. The legend is that a samurai warrior seeking justice slain 36 men. The truth is that a lot fewer died, and the way they went is less than honorable. This story a truth legends consistently leave out: fighting is hard, and few people have the stomach for it.

The face of fear

The story, taking place in the 17th Century, is about a well known swordsman Araki (Mifune), who has agreed to help his brother-in-law get revenge. The target is Matagoro (Chiaki), who killed a member of their family. This allegiance puts him at odds with his lifelong friend, Jinza (Shimura) who must protect Matagoro. There are many armed and ready for conflict on both sides. In essence there are only two real skilled samurai, Jinza and Araki.

The plan for Araki’s group is an ambush at Kaglya Corner, and the avengers prepare for the attack by waiting at a lodge near the corner. The waiting is staged in an agonizing fashion, with each member of the party going through the events in the form of flashbacks. This method is effective in setting the stage for how avoidable the event could be, were it not for saving face and honor.

Kurosawa’s script deftly shows that everyone, except for Jinza and Araki have an innate understanding at throwing one’s life away for the sake of an ideal. The longer they wait, the more they realize they’re throwing their lives away. This is made intuitively obvious in showing a shaking in even the lowliest members of the society in the face of fear of the events to come.

Jinza facing his fate

The honor with which the two skilled fighters approach the situation is moving. We know the fight will be mainly decided by which of them wins. Their discussion early in the first act is moving because it is obvious that they respect and like one another considerably. They know this going through the motions is stupid, but the alternative is, to them, worse.

The lead up to the battle, with the horse hooves clicking incessantly, is agonizingly long in coming. The climactic battle is everything promised by the opening narrative. It is reminiscent of many films since, from Matewan, to Unforgiven, to Open Range. There is a quick clash between the two samurai, and the rest of the battle is a complete mess. It’s a lot different from what we’re conditioned to expect from our action legends and many of our action films.

Mifune and Shimura are both fantastic in this story. One is given the sense of marching towards despair as the two ponder their fate. Shimura’s Jinza is more accepting of his role as a defender. He is at peace because he does not have to be the aggressor. Mifune, learning from his mentor (Shimura) a sense of subtlety, is able to further his effectively obvious passion through restraint. Even without words, we understand both perfectly.

Through Mori’s skillful lens and Kurosawa’s universal storytelling ability, we are given access to understanding something of human nature: killing is not easy, beautiful or glorious. Even those who are good at it realize this.

(**** out of *****)

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