Wednesday, May 15, 2013

11 SAMURAI (1966)

More isn't necessarily better, but Eiichi Kudo has plenty to offer in this picture along with four more warriors than sufficed for Akira Kurosawa. To be correct, Kudo's team of heroes includes one ronin, with a grudge against aristocrats, and one woman, valiantly determined to make up for the loss of her brother to tuberculosis. Like many such pictures, 11 Samurai is concerned with the honor of a clan and the sacrifices its retainers will make to preserve it, usually by taking revenge on a villain. In this case the villain is particularly obnoxious. The spoiled relative of a retired shogun, and thus a privileged noble, Lord Nariatsu (Kantaro Suga) blunders across the border into the neighboring fiefdom while hunting rabbits and slaughters the first peasant who gets in his way. He isn't supposed to cross into another fief without permission, and the murder only exacerbates the offense in the eyes of the local clan leader, who presumes to reprimand Nariatsu and catches an arrow in the eye for his trouble. Nariatsu's family is so privileged that the government decides to blame the murdered man's clan for the incident and strip them of their lucrative fief, which the envious Nariatsu has coveted for some time. The most Hayato (Isao Natsuyagi) gets by appealing to the government is a one-month delay in the announcement of the penalty. But that gives him time to formulate a plan to change the game by killing Nariatsu. He suspects that the government would cover up a revenge killing that would embarrass the state and write Nariatsu off as a victim of illness, and with Nariatsu out of the picture the government might rethink the confiscation.

Nariatsu (above) offends, and members of the Abe clan defend their honor.

Hayato has two priorities: keeping his subordinates from jumping the gun and attacking Nariatsu on their own, and outwitting the crafty chamberlain Gyobu (Ryutaro Otomo) responsible for protecting Nariatsu. He suppresses one premature attempt by his men (and the woman Nui [Keiko Okawa], subbing for her brother) and sentences them (except for the woman) to seppuku. Their readiness to die only proves their worth to him; they (and the woman) become key to his plan. Nui's role is more actress than warrior; she absconds with Hayato as he attempts to convince everyone that he's given up on the fief and abandoned his wife Orie (Junko Miyazono) to live with the other woman. Orie proves more understanding about this than her brother, who decides to show up Hayato by attacking Nariatsu singlehandedly, with predictably disastrous consequences. With her brother dead and her husband not likely to survive, Orie kills herself, to Hayato's horror. He envisioned a revenge scenario with minimal damage to his clan, but it's not turning out as he'd planned.

With Orie dead, Hayato has even less to live for than before,
apart from waiting for his chance for revenge.

Pressing on, Hayato contrives the perfect ambush to take out Nariatsu -- Kudo shows us how perfectly it would have worked were our hero not a sucker willing to trust authority. At practically the last moment, word reaches him that the government is going to reconsider the confiscation, and he aborts the clan's best chance to nail their enemy. Soon enough, he learns he's been lied to, with no alternative left to him but a direct assault on Nariatsu's entourage.

Justice is on Hayato's side, but Kudo sees little glory in his hero's vengeance. The film climaxes with a running battle in the rain that might remind viewers of Seven Samurai but comes closer in spirit to the muddy combat of Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight. The bad guys lose, but there's little sense of triumph in their downfall. A defining shot of a survivor sitting in the mud, slashing at a puddle with his sword, underscores the pointlessness of it all perhaps too blatantly. Kudo has it both ways, however, since the final fight is excitingly staged and punctuated with crowd-pleasing violence, most notably when one of our heroes becomes a suicide bomber by jumping on a bonfire with a pack of gunpowder. Samurai cinema in general was good at having it both ways, many films from the Sixties forward strongly criticizing feudal injustice without disappointing action fans. Kudo's are more cerebral samurai films, often focusing on a strategic battle of wits between leaders as with Hayato and Gyobu here, and 11 Samurai features strong performances from Natsuyagi and a diverse ensemble. He impresses as an action director as well, and 11 Samurai can certainly be enjoyed by action fans (though patience is advised) regardless of whatever message Kudo had in mind.

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