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“Revenge”: Tadashi Imai’s 1964 samurai epic is a tale of madness, honor and spilled blood
Director Tadashi Imai’s 1964 samurai epic Revenge (Adauchi) — which is currently streaming in our selection of Samurai movies over on Night Flight Plus — is a tale of madness and honor, telling a tale of how a quarrel between two samurai warriors leads to the spilling of a lot of blood in the name of revenge.
Revenge was written by Japan’s top screenwriter, Shinobu Hasimoto, who had previously written several of the classic screenplays for some of legendary director Akira Kurosawa’s best films.
Tadashi Imai was born in Tokyo in 1912, and by the time he was a teenager, he was already rebelling against authority figures, showing complete disdain for organized religion and his country’s wrongheaded social structure.
In the 1930s, he became involved with left-wing political causes and he was arrested twice for participating in protest marches while enrolled as a student at the Imperial University of Japan, this during a period when dissident political action was considered a capital offense (he was released both times).
Tadashi eventually dropped out of college and joined J.O. Studio in Kyoto, where he began writing screenplays and eventually directing movies that expressed his strong political beliefs.
Then, during World War II, and despite his progressive-leaning political views, he became a staunch supporter of Japan’s war efforts.
The films he made during WWII were little more than wartime propaganda, much of it in support Emperor Hirohito’s regime, but after the war, Tadashi gradually returned to making films, including political thrillers, which had a more overt Marxist feel to them.
By the mid-1950s, Tadashi had gained a reputation as a filmmaker who championed the working class.
His socially conscious dramas usually showed how simple, salt of the earth people, sometimes fishermen or rice farmers, faced difficult economic hardships, but Tadashi framed their true struggles around their fight against authority figures, which is why they were considered somewhat controversial.
For example, his 1957 film, Kome (The Rice People), which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, told the story of a new breed of rice farmers who were refusing to follow in the same path of their ancestors, and instead of putting up with the government bureaucracy and predatory corporate overlords, they made their living by fishing and stealing from other farmers.
In the 1960s, a decade of change around the world, there was a paradigm shift going on in the Japanese film industry, and by now film companies — like the Toei Company, Ltd. — were shifting away from the regular and rapid production of standard and stereotypical genre films.
During what was probably Japanese cinema’s most prolific decade, the Toei Company began focusing on producing films that were then marketed to a large demographic comprised of mostly young men.
Buoyed by the success of films that were part of a so-called Japanese New Wave, Toei became one of the more profitable film companies in Japan, and soon were producing a lot of films by young left-wing directors, like Tadashi Imai, who were more focused on creating work that challenged and questioned the same prevailing social conventions that had been presented in films during the previous decades.
Tadashi’s zankoku jidaigeki films, however, were considered even more controversial than his previous work as they were clearly an attempt to highlight the inherent hypocrisy of the samurai code of honor and the unquestioning loyalty to one’s master.
Zankoku jidaigeki films — which essentially means “cruel” jidaigeki — are a kind of dark-themed period drama genre found in Japanese film, television, video game, and theatre.
These historical costume dramas were usually set during the Edo period of Japanese history, in the 17th and 18th Centuries, from roughly 1603 to 1868.
Revenge (Adauchi) was written by Japan’s top screenwriter, Shinobu Hasimoto, who had previously written classic screenplays for some of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s best films, including Seven Samurai, Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, and The Bad Sleep Well, to name just a few.
He’s also penned a number of samurai classics by other directors, including The Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto, 1966) and Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962).
Revenge takes place in the year 1722, during the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, and tells the tale of an impulsive low-ranking samurai warrior named Shinpachi Ezaki (played by Kinnosuke Nakamura) who takes offense at something a more respected, high-ranking samurai — Okuno Magodayu, the head of the Okuna clan and a government inspector — says about his smudged weapon blade, implying that he’s grown lax in his duties.
Shinpachi — a poor samurai with no real prospects in his future — ignores the code of the Bushido and returns the insult, and he is then challenged to a private duel in a misty marsh (on the “field of honor”) which is considered illegal unless sanctioned by the local government.
Shinpachi wins the duel and kills Magodayu, but when news of what happened reaches back to both families, Niwa Denbei, chancellor of the Okuna clan, declares that both Shinpachi and Magodayu were temporarily insane at the time of the duel (since neither can then be held responsible for their actions, it’s the only excuse that will protect the honor and reputation of both clans).
Shinpachi — who was never satisfied being born into a samurai clan to begin with — is then exiled to a remote Buddhist temple, a mountaintop monastery, where he hopes to one day return and make amends with his dishonored family.
Magodayu’s younger brother Shume (Tetsuro Tamba), however, becomes furious with Shinpachi, and goes against his vengeful family’s attempts to cover the killing up by seeking out Shinpachi in order to revenge his brother’s death.
Shinpachi reluctantly returns home, where he learns that he has been ordered to fight a second illegal duel against an old friend, Tatsunosuke Okune (Tetsuro Tanba), the youngest of the Okune brothers, in a battle to the death in order to restore honor to the warring clans.
The duel may cost Shinpachi — driven him to the edge of madness — not only his sanity but his life.
Much like Imai’s earlier Bushido was, Hasimoto’s screenplay tells Shinpachi’s story — structured in such a way that it builds up to a climatic public duel between Shinpachi and Tatsunosuke in the film’s final act — through a series of non-linear flashbacks and flash-forwards, which also mirrors the fractured narrative arc of Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
Most of the time, the samurai sword fights depicted in Japanese samurai films are meant to endear the audience to the heroic samurai.
In the swordplay scenes in Tadashi Imai’s Revenge, however — beautifully choreographed by Adachi Reijiro — the spectacle of violence is mostly avoided, and instead of showing the combatants involved in ritualized duels dying a bloodless death in a series of beautifully choreographed ballet-like movements, the scenes are much more chaotic, and filled with images dripping with blood, and bodies writhing in pain, the exhausted fighters ultimately dying with nothing resolved by their deaths.
Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa circa 1960
Legendary actor Kinnosuke Nakamura — one of Japan’s most popular and charismatic actors, starring in many famous samurai epics, and also the star of Tadashi’s Bushido: The Cruel Code of Samurai — gives a stand-out performance here as the unfortunate Shinpachi Ezacki, with much of the acting done with just his eyes alone, darting about frantically.
The film’s brooding black & white cinematography — by Shunichiro Nakao, one of the great, unsung cinematographers of Japanese film — is quite beautiful.
Like his previous film, Bushido: The Cruel Code of Samurai, Tadashi’s Revenge distinguishes itself from the dozens of samurai costume films that were being turned out by the Toei studio in the mid-60s.
Both were dark existential period pieces that did not hide the director’s contempt for the samurai’s feudal mentality, showing the audience that everything for members of both clans is pretty much doomed right from the start.
Many critics, rightly so, believed these films — hyper-critical of the Bushido code — to be subversive left-wing attacks against the government, pointing out that the heroic actions of the samurai, who were essentially the policemen of their day, were actually engaged in pointless acts that belong to a bygone era, one that accepted severe austerity and meditations on death without questioning whether or not they were truly honorable.
Director Tadashi Imai — who won a Golden Bear award for Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai at the Berlin Film Festival, in addition to dozens of awards at Japanese film festivals — died in 1991.