Made by underrated Japanese director Tadashi Imai in 1964 for Toei Studios, Revenge is a grim and gritty samurai film that beings, quite simply, with an argument. Set in feudal times under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate we see the Shogun's Inspector, Okuno Magodayu, inspecting an arms warehouse inside a castle. He finds a tiny bit of dirt on one of the spears being stored there and makes a comment that offends Ezaki Shinpachi (Nakamura Kinnosuke). The two argue about the minor issue and soon enough Magodayu feels insulted and challenges Ezaki, unhappy that someone beneath him would talk to him in such a way. The end result is that Magodayu is killed, an event which basically launches a feud between the Shinpachi family and the Okuno family, and as is typical with situations like this, it does not end well, particularly once Magodayu's brother (Tetsuro Tamba) shows up and wants revenge.
Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, the same man who wrote established classics like The Seven Samurai and Rashomon and widely regarded as one of the finest of all Japanese screenwriters, Revenge is a dark and intense drama that omits all of the comedic elements that were popular in samurai cinema in favor of stark realism and brooding authenticity. The film does take some time to get going but once it does, the last half hour or so turns out to be so genuinely tense that you won't mind having waited much at all.
The film benefits from a great lead performance from Nakamura Kinnosuke, whose performance feels absolutely heartfelt and completely sincere. Though Kinnosuke is good in all manner of pictures, here his role is substantial enough that he really seems to get into the character in a big way and the movie is all the better for it. Though the film does lag in spots and the pacing is erratic, this is worth seeing for Kinnosuke's work alone. Thankfully there's more to offer than just one good performance. While Tamba, who tends to be excellent in everything, is underused and not really given much to work with, the rest of the cast are all fine and the cinematography is consistently excellent.
The film also benefits from some interesting political leanings. Of course, the character of Ezaki Shinpachi is, in this film, standing up to an authority figure and obviously lands himself and his family in some serious trouble for doing so, but in addition to the picture's anti-authority stance it also raises some questions about the true meaning of the hallowed Bushido Code. We see Shinpachi wrestle with this in the film and it raises some interesting questions as to its merits, even going so far as to be banished by his own clan for some of his actions. As he grows to resent his social status and push back against his expected role in society, his character becomes more interesting, and his honesty contrasts quite nicely with the corruption and back handed dealings that those in power are involved with. This tension and brooding is complimented nicely by some clever camera work, a perfect example being a few shots in the picture where Imai holds the shot and the close up just a little longer than you might expect him to, letting us get into the character's head just enough.
A few poorly paced flashbacks make things a little confusing in spots, as the film doesn't do quite enough to differentiate time periods for the audience, but overall this is a very well made picture and one that fans of samurai cinema ought to really enjoy.
Animeigo's 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen progressive scan transfer is solid enough. Some mild print damage and noticeable grain is present but it's never too obnoxious or distracting, it simply reminds us that this is a film sourced transfer. Contrast for the black and white image is usually strong as are black levels though sometimes things look a bit flat and there are some scenes where shadow detail gets lost. Despite that, for an older black and white film, the picture quality is generally very good here, though some minor compression artifacts can be seen in darker parts of the movie.
The Japanese language Dolby Digital Mono track, which includes optional English subtitles, is well balanced and free of any hiss or distortion. Dialogue is clean and clear and while there isn't an abundance of channel separation to note, there aren't any problems here - the movie sounds pretty good though there are times where the high end is just a little bit shrill.
Extras are light on these discs, limited to trailers for a few other Animeigo releases, some cast and crew bios, some insightful program notes that explain the historical and cultural context and importance of the film, a still gallery, menus and chapter stops.
Fans of sixties samurai films can consider this one an essential purchase. Revenge is, quite simply, an exciting and dramatic picture with plenty of action, adventure, intrigue and suspense throughout. A great lead performance, some fine direction and a gripping story make this one easy to enjoy and Animeigo's DVD comes highly recommended even if it is light on extra features.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.