Friday, September 23, 2011

Revenge (1964)

Title: Revenge (Adauchi) (1964)

Director: Tadashi Imai

Cast: Kinnosuke Nakamura


Samurai films and the theme of revenge are always laced together somehow; I guess living by the sword brings its own burdens and sorrows. This is a theme that director Tadashi Imai explore through this fantastic Samurai film, ‘Adauchi’, a story about a Samurai who gets thrust into a duel to the death for a minor squabble. The film explores the ideals of a Samurai, it explores how they gave more importance to their ‘honor’ and ‘saving face’ than human life itself. The question the film asks is: should it be this way? Or is human life more valuable?

Revenge tells the tale of Shinpachi, a member of a minor clan who works for the Samurais cleaning and polishing their swords. One day, a high ranking member of the Okumo clan criticizes Shinpachi’s work telling him that the spears haven’t been polished properly. Shinpachi takes this as an insult, and tells the official that his swords are probably not polished either, and that they are probably gathering dust at his house. The official takes this as an even higher insult, especially when it comes from a lower ranking clan member. So an illegal duel is arranged. You see, in those days duels had to have the approval of the government, and to go on and duel without proper authorization was something illegal. But pride wins the day and Shinpachi faces off with Okumo. We never get to see the fight, but we see it’s outcome, Shinpachi has won. The high ranking member of the Okumo clan is dead, how will Shinpachi respond for this death, especially when the duel was an illegal one?

That’s where Shinpachi’s problems begin because essentially, Shinpachi has commited an act of subversiveness by participating in an illegal duel. So the government labels him as a mad man, saying that he went mad and went on a killing spree. From their on in, Shinpachi runs away to a monastery, all the while the Okumo clan challenges him to another duel to settle the score. Will Shinpachi participate in the duel? Will he let his enemy kill him and die honorably? Will he commit Harakiri? Or will he simply ‘walk away’ and forget all about this mess? Will he choose to live or die? All these choices are offered to Shanpichi at some point by different characters in the film, but ultimately, it’s up to Shanpichi to make a choice. Stand up for yourself or runaway like a coward? Give up or fight for your honor?

The director of Revenge –Tadashi Imai- was considered in his time to be a very controversial director because he often time made extremely socially conscious films, many of which spoke against government abuse and were outright subversive. One such film was the one he made before Revenge called Bushido: The Cruel Code of Samurai in which he debunked the honor and heroism in the Samurai mythos. In other words, he didn’t much agree with the way of the Samurai. And since in those days Samurai’s were essentially the police force of their time, the films were considered to be subversive in nature. Revenge is no exception. Shanpichi is essentially a working class hero, a lowly worker who polishes the samurai’s swords, not necessarily and important individual within society. He’s the common man, just going about his business. But when treated with disrespect, he strikes back to defend his name and honor.

This is something that happens often with governments who cater to the rich. They have a modus operandi in which they basically bad mouth the poor, speak about them as something less than them, they thrive in belittling the little guy. A natural reaction for the insulted party is to get offended; anger and hatred of course can ensue. This is what happens to Shanpichi, he won’t take being insulted by a government official no matter how poor or common he is. He retains his self respect, no matter how much of a worker bee he might be. Subversive types who start talking about “Big Brother is Watching” and “conspiracy theories” often times get labeled as a crazies in society; this is yet another technique, labeling those who think differently as ‘crazy’ or in need of therapy. This is what happens to Shanpichi in Revenge. Suddenly, everyone in town goes against Shanpichi because the government has labeled him as a nut. Strange thing is that all the pressure and stress of the situation in which Shanpichi now finds himself in gets to him, to the point where it feels like he might really be going crazy. So I loved how the filmmakers used a Samurai story to address these very real issues about classism and difference of ideologies. It is a very rebellious film in nature, Shanpichi being the ultimate rebel willing to die for what he believes in, yet another common idea presented in films of a rebellious nature.

Something interesting about this movie is that for a film made in 1964, I think it was really ahead of its time in the way it tells it’s story. Director Tadashi Imai chose to tell this story in a non-linear fashion, which means that the story jumps from the past to the present and vice-versa constantly. In fact, all through out the film. You see, the film starts out by showing us the government preparing the arena in which the duel is going to take place, it shows us the people gathering for the event, the whole town gets worked up to see this duel! And it goes from the arena, to the past, to show us how Shanpichi got into this ordeal. But it doesn’t warn you about it, it simply jumps from past to present, you as the viewer have to be alert enough to realize that the film is doing this. It felt like Pulp Fiction (1994) or 21Grams (2003) in that way.

As for pacing, the film is very slow, but if you’re not the kind of person who needs something blowing up every five seconds you should be fine. Plus, the story is interesting enough to keep you glued to the screen. In other words, the film is slow, but the plot develops in a very interesting way. This is a Samurai drama that does not glorify the violence. In fact, Imai purposely leaves out the violence from certain scenes, meaning he totally skips a fight and jumps right into the outcome of the fight. But don’t get me wrong, we do get to see some cool Samurai swordplay somewhere around the middle of the film, and finally, the last 25 minutes of the film are completely reserved for the duel which is pretty awesome, and yeah, it gets bloody. The final confrontation has a lot of realism in it, and a lot of intensity, Shanpichi really lets out all his anger in those last sequence and it can be seen in his face, filled with blind rage, anger and lust for revenge.

Final words about Adauchi: a great Samurai film, beautifully shot in black and white. Director Imai might test the limits of your patience with the pacing, but just remember, it’s the story and its thematic elements that should keep you pulled in. That plus you just want to know what’s going to happen to Shanpichi, the rebel. The ending confrontation is worth the wait, but only if you know why they are there. It’s a film that shows the futility in pursuing revenge, rather than pursuing life.

Rating: 4 out of 5


John Theivagt said...

I think the reason it would feel more modern, with its flashback, non-linear style is that Quentin Tarantino, the director who so successfully used this style in Pulp Fiction, is a real film buff was emulating this style purposefully as an homage. He later went on to make the Kill Bill movies, a complete homage to both Japanese and Chinese martial arts films, but where this editing style would not really work.

Thus, it seems to me that rather than being ahead of its time, it instead inspired future directors to emulate it. Then again, with movies like Rashemon (1950), the idea of flashback story telling isn't really all that new, even in 1964. I am about to watch this film. Thanks for the review. It sold me on it.

Franco Macabro said...

True, Kurosawa had already experimented with this style of story telling in Rashomon. Glad you enjoyed the review, hope you like the film and thanks for commenting!


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