Caught a screening of The Samurai Vagabonds—which, contrary to its title, is not a period film, but a modern-day (well, circa 1960) social drama. Japan Society advertised this as a genuine rarity: the sole directorial effort of Tsutomu Tamura (who would later pen several scripts for the infamous Nagisa Oshima), so obscure that it remains largely unknown even in its native country.
The plot unfolds in a small, remote town that is basically owned by the local concrete quarry. The young, nihilistic head of the mining company shamelessly abuses his authority, ordering his employees to torment his sister-in-law, who survived the botched double suicide that claimed her husband’s life. But does he really despise her, or does his behavior represent the sort of aimless rebellion typical of his generation? After all, his father constantly offers to simply pay the woman to leave, fearing that their feud would jeopardize his political career if it became public knowledge, but his son stubbornly refuses to settle the matter with “dirty” money (indeed, when he mistakenly believes that she’s accepted the bribe, he literally begs her to stay). When a drifter with a stutter and a sordid past arrives in search of work, he becomes a pawn in this twisted game—with deadly repercussions.
The Samurai Vagabonds features pretty much all of the expected narrative ingredients: disillusioned protagonists, idle rich villains, marginalized outcasts oppressed by a corrupt society. Its most memorable element, however, is its relentlessly bleak, grounded, and realistic tone. As simmering tensions inevitably erupt into brutal violence, there is no last-minute act of heroism, and true love doesn’t overcome all obstacles. Instead, an innocent woman is savagely beaten and a man is fatally stabbed, all while dozens of witnesses stand idly by and do nothing. Injustice prevails because ordinary people make no attempt to intervene.
Not even the occasional technical difficulty (the projector malfunctioned during one reel change, and the live subtitles frequently lagged behind the onscreen action) could diminish the chilling power of that message.