It ends with a tight close-up on the sweat-drenched face of fencing instructor Araki Mataemon (Toshiro Mifune, a far more versatile performer than his popular nickname, “The Japanese John Wayne,” even begins to suggest). His wide, wild eyes stare blankly at the blood-soaked soil, glistening with the trauma of the recently-concluded battle. For the first time, he has drawn his sword against living opponents—and, in the process, taken the lives of two human beings. One was Hanbei the Haze, an honorable samurai renowned for his skill with the spear.
The other was Jinzaemon (the incomparable Takashi Shimura), Mataemon’s closest friend.
The “reluctant duelists” dilemma appears frequently in samurai fiction—in films like 13 Assassins (Eiichi Kudo’s original and Takashi Miike’s remake), anime like Samurai Seven, and even Western comics like Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo—but here, in the Akira Kurosawa-penned, Kazuo Mori-helmed Vendetta of a Samurai, the conflict somehow feels more authentic, more urgent. Kurosawa’s screenplay wisely avoids excessive melodrama, focusing instead on deconstructing traditional notions of samurai “honor” (a theme he also explored in The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail and Sanjuro)—and, by extension, questioning the glorification of bloodshed (also glimpsed in Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Seven Samurai).
The depiction of violence in samurai cinema varies from film to film. Directors like Hiroshi Inagaki (the Miyamoto Musashi trilogy, Samurai Saga) and Kinji Fukasaku (The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy, Samurai Reincarnation) favored energetic, graceful, almost dancelike fight choreography; Zatoichi-star Shintaro Katsu preferred a simpler, more efficient style of swordplay. Kurosawa and Mori openly mock such stylization in Vendetta of a Samurai’s opening minutes, staging a deliberately theatrical fray inspired by the “embellished” accounts of Araki Mataemon’s deeds at the Key House Crossroads. Mifune—his Kikuchiyo setting cranked up to eleven—bounces across the screen like a loose ping-pong ball, strikes several dramatic poses, twists his face into a grotesque flesh-and-blood parody of a Noh mask, and somehow manages to slay his opponents by the dozen even as his frenzied sword swings fall about a mile short. And in the background, cuddly old Takashi Shimura cackles maniacally, seconds away from sprouting a Snidely Whiplash mustache.
The story goes that Mataemon killed 36 men during this confrontation,” a narrator helpfully informs the viewer midway through the sequence. “However, reliable documents tell a different story. Mataemon killed only two men. […] It’s easy to kill 36 men if they are like straw figures. It’s hard to kill two skilled swordsmen.
The filmmakers stress the "men" in swordsmen, peppering the narrative with subtle, understated character actions and interactions that humanize the doomed warriors. When Mago, Mataemon’s spy, stumbles into the Kagiya Teahouse with news of Jinza’s approach, Mataemon carefully counts out fifty-six mon to pay the innkeeper.
“This isn’t the time for that,” barks Kazuma, Mataemon’s vengeful brother-in-law.
“Yes, it is the time for this,” Mataemon responds. “What a shame if they said, ‘Araki was so scared that he couldn’t count right.’”
Outside, Jinza holds up his party to bundle himself in warmer clothes: “Riding a horse is good, but it gets cold.” Hanbei agrees, and generously grants Matagoro (the target of the eponymous vendetta) permission to remove his chilly chainmail hood, lest he catch cold before they reach Edo.
These slow, quiet moments build to an explosive climax that represents the exact antithesis of the film’s farcical opening—Mataemon, Jinza, and the other samurai clash not as dignified warriors, but as frightened men desperately struggling to survive. Kazuma, Mago, and loyal vassal Buemon lack anything resembling finesse, their panicked flailing slicing the air and little else. Their foes fare no better, bickering and stumbling over each other when they finally gather enough nerve to move at all. Judged by conventional chambara standards, even the long-awaited showdown between Mataemon and Jinzaemon seems anticlimactic: Mataemon knocks Jinza off his mount, bats aside his sword when he feebly lifts it in self-defense, and finishes him off with a single vertical slash.
But before the disappointment can set in, Mori cuts to a point-of-view shot, showing the audience the last thing Jinza sees before his vision blurs to nothingness: his best friend’s face, frozen somewhere between regret and pity. Mifune’s expression reinforces the horror of cutting short a fellow man’s life—and the inherent cruelty of a code of ethics that demands such bloodshed.
[Originally written May 12, 2012.]