Director: Kenji Misumi
Writer: Kazoo Koike, Goseki Kojima
Producer: Shintaro Katsu
Cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Tomoko Mayama, Fumio Watanabe, Keiko Fujita, Reiko Kasahara, Yunosuke Ito, Shun’ya Wazaki, Yoshi Kato
Running Time: 83 min.
By Martin Sandison
In February of this year, I attended a drinks function for the Edinburgh Film Festival, which takes place in June. I bumped into an acquaintance I’d known for many years, an actor and senior programmer called Niall Fulton, who the previous year had put on a Walter Hill retrospective. This guy knows his stuff. He almost immediately said ‘If you thought last year was good, wait until this year. It will be right up your street’. He wasn’t joking.
The festival managed to secure 35mm prints of both Sword of Vengeance and the rare Golgo 13, starring Ken Takakura. Just before the lights went down for the former, he told me they had almost given up on securing the film, because Japanese studios such as Toho are so protective of their legacy. They told him if the print was shown, it would have to be burnt straight away. He decided to go down the private collectors route, and discovered a guy in Germany who owns all 6 films in the series, and had given them to a German label for the Blu-ray release. However, when they tested the print, the audio was out of sync. This was days before the film was to be shown. Kudos to the projection team at the best cinema in Edinburgh the Filmhouse, they took apart the projector and through the miracles of soldering and tweezers, managed to sort the problem. I can tell you seeing Sword of Vengeance on the big screen was worth all of their efforts.
It can be difficult to know how to approach reviewing a film as important and notorious as Sword of Vengeance, but I’ll approach it with my ultimate weapon: passion. Some of the series I’ve only watched once, but my favourite was always Babycart at The River Styx. Both Sword of Vengeance and Babycart at The River Styx were combined into the grindhouse classic Shogun Assassin, which as with most of you, I saw first. A bastardisation of the story really, it concentrated on including all of the violence from them. Nothing wrong with that, but in the heart of Lone Wolf and Cub there is a beautifully observed narrative. This is culled from the huge resource of Manga the films are based on, by the wonderful team Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. Having read most of the series, I can say it is my favourite Manga (and comic book). As the co-programmer of the retrospective David Cairns said, the Manga is sombre and multi-layered, as if Kurosawa had written it.
I would guess that all of our readers know the story already, so I’ll keep it brief. Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is the Shogun’s executioner, and is framed by the evil Yagyu clan as being disloyal to the Shogunate. He escapes the attack, and goes on the road as an assassin for hire with his infant son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), and decides to wage war on the Yagyu.
One can only guess at the impact this first movie had on an unsuspecting Japanese and International audience when it was released in 1972. Prior to this, Samurai cinema was classical and traditional concentrating on existential heroes and historical narratives. Sword of Vengeance treads a line between this and exploitation, with blood spurting action and explicit sexual scenes. A game-changing approach, and one that has influenced filmmakers the world over. The most obvious champion is Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bil Vol. 1), without whom the series of films would not be nearly as well known. Director Darren Aranowsky’s (Requiem for a Dream) dream project is a remake. It was revealed recently that the team behind the forthcoming Ghost in the Shell live-action film have optioned the Manga of Lone Wolf and Cub to make a movie. I’m sure many of you agree with me that it’s a bad choice. There is no need, when there exists these note perfect interpretations. As soon as the first frames of Sword of Vengeance appear onscreen, you just know this movie is going to be a stone cold classic.
As the exploitation genre goes, there may not be another film as beautifully shot and stylistically immersive as Sword of Vengeance. Director Kenji Misumi made many Samurai films prior, with notable inclusions in the Sleepy Eyes of Death and Zatoichi series. His combination of classical Japanese styles with a sharp eye for period detail and gore that had never been seen before in the Samurai genre is a joy to behold. The violence is meticulously staged, with group battles and one on one showdowns ringing with tension. Some of the editing is ground breaking, with short sections depicting extreme violence cutting to long shots with intricate swordplay. One pivotal battle in a lake depicts Ogami Itto’s sword techniques in unbelievably inventive fashion, with fantastic editing that blows my mind every time I see it. Credit to the soundtrack composers Hideakira Sakurai and Kuuihiko Muurai for creating a beautiful score that compliments the imagery, – it’s even worth listening to on its own.
Wakayama as Itto, in the role that became his signature, is magnificent. He communicates through his body language and eyes a man of iron will that will not be shaken, still able to care for his son and those he meets and helps despite laying waste (in imaginative styles) to all those who oppose him. Wakayama’s brother Shintaro Katsu (the actor who played the original Zatoichi) produced Sword of Vengeance and the first three films in the series. Tomikawa, as Daigoro, was only 4 years old at the time, and absolutely captures the spirit of the depiction in the Manga. Various bit parts are played by actors such as Fumio Watanabe and Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, who were part of the Toho stable and went on to work on movies such as the Female Prisoner series.
As the lights came up after taking in the movie, I was speechless. I hadn’t watched it in a long time, and from the dream like opening to the iconically framed last shot, this is a timeless masterwork.
Martin Sandison’s Rating: 10/10