One of the epic sagas of Japanese cinema begins here…
The story of Ogami Itto begins with him already ostracized from the palace, renting his and his infant son’s “services” in the street. His actual story is revealed through a series of flashbacks. Ogami Itto used to be the executioner to the shogun, one of the highest and most hated positions in the country. However, the “underground arm” of the Yagyu headed by Yagyu Retsudo plots against him, in order to place a man under their control, in his stead. In their efforts, they have his wife slain by ninjas, and manage to frame Itto, with false accusations about him overusing his authority. However, the executioner manages to escape from their trap along with his son, after killing a number of their men. As he is hunted by the Yagyu with his reputation shattered, he also gains notoriety for fight against them. In this episode, he is approached by a chamberlain, who tasks him with killing a rival and his henchmen. Itto’s search leads him to hot-spring village, where his target and his men have hired a band of ronins.
Kenji Misumi directs a film that wonderfully combines artistry with exploitation elements. Regarding the first aspect, the depiction of the era is highly realistic, both in the palace, where particularly the samurai costumes are a true work of art, and in the tragic circumstances that were tormenting “ordinary people” during the Edo period. Chikashi Makiura does a great job in the cinematography department while Toshio Taniguchi presents the various flashbacks in a way that causes no confusion at all. All of these aspects find their apogee in three scenes. The first one occurs with the initial duel between Itto and the Yagyu clan, which takes place, for the most part, in a river, highlighting both the surroundings and Eiichi Kusumoto’s action choreography. The second sequence occurs in the ending of the film, in the battle between Itto and the rival chamberlain’s men. The third one stands a bit apart, since there is no fight involved. I refer to the scene where Itto demands from his baby son, Daigoro, to choose between the sword and the ball, in a decision that defines both their futures. The agony and the overall setting of the scene also highlight Misumi’s direction, in one of the trademark scenes of the samurai genre.
The exploitation element is also quite obvious, since violence seems to be everywhere in Itto’s world, and its depiction is quite graphic, with the maiming and the splattered blood being quite common in all of the action scenes. Furthermore, Misumi did not shy away from nudity, as most of the women appearing in the film end up naked in some point, and occasionally raped. There is even a sex scene between Itto and a prostitute, again in exploitation fashion, since the two of them are forced to have sex in front of the ronins’ eyes.
Tomisaburo Wakayama makes a spectacular Ogami Itto, as he plays his role with the restrained artistry of a kabuki actor (he uses to be a kabuki actor after role). His strict persona is defined by his visage, with his eyes communicating a number of sentiments and statuses, as in the scene where his look forces Daigoro to suckle a crazy woman’s breast, or in the scenes where he is about to attack. His stentorian voice also gives Itto an added level of respect. On the other hand, Yunosuke Ito plays Yagyu Retsudo with a distinct hyperbole, which highlights the fact that his character is equally evil, cunning, and crazy.
Sword of Vengeance is a masterpiece of the genre and a very entertaining film.