By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Director Eiichi Kudo’s “Eleven Samurai” (1966) completes his gritty, visually rich samurai trilogy. It features elements derived from the two earlier films, “13 Assassins” (1963) and “The Great Killing” (1964), but introduces additional elements, making the film worthy of its brethren.
Kudo was not, this time, working with screenwriter Kaneo Ikegami, who’d provided screenplays for the first two movies. Rather, the script comes from Kei Tasaka, Takeo Kunihiro, and Noribumi Suzuki. But much like the first two films, this one features a human pestilence — a woefully capricious and evil villain who must be brought down at any cost.
In this case, the pestilence is Lord Nariatsu, played by Kantaro Suga. Suga played a similar role in “13 Assassins,” but here, his villainy comes with a touch of flamboyance. His head reared back to look down his nose at everyone, Nariatsu carries faint echoes of a modern-day drag queen. He’s constantly getting in over his head with drinks, women, and capricious violence, leaving chamberlain, Gyobu (Ryutaro Otomo), to perform damage control.
As in the previous films, director Kudo presents a subtle and tense conflict between the evil Lord and his staff. Gyobu does not love his Lord Nariatsu and does not even particularly like him. But he acknowledges his duty, even unto death should that prove necessary. He’ll give his life for a man such as Nariatsu, because that is the samurai code.
One interesting twist to this story of bringing down a villain is that one woman, Lady Nui (Eiko Okawa), is eager to join in. The presence of a woman makes the plotting male samurai uncomfortable, but she has a sword and the script implies that she knows how to use it. This is the only depiction of a female warrior with sword in Kudo’s entire trilogy (although the “Great Killing” has some remarkable female characters), and while she struggles for a place to fit in, her presence makes for a satisfying twist.
Another worthy character is the unlikely warrior, Daijuro (Ko Nishimura). Once a “proper” samurai, Daijuro let wildness and depraved living destroy his reputation. Up until he meets the plotters against the Lord, he seems not to care about anything. But the opportunity to destroy a vile Lord, who represents everything Daijuro ever rallied against, ignites a passion. Actor Nishimura, who played in several other samurai films, including Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Yojimbo,” takes great relish in playing a rogue.
Like the other two films, “Eleven Samurai” builds to an elaborate climax, which includes many individual sword fights within a larger fray. Unlike the finish of “The Great Killing,” however, this time, the warriors aren’t immersed in water, but torrential rain pours down on them, leaving mud which foils their footholds. They still fight for their respective sides, but the muddy ground unites them in a particular struggle, emphasizing the common ground of all samurai, regardless of Lord, position, or personality.
Kudo’s films brought many worthy features to the samurai film tradition itself, including the novelty of a larger group plotting against wickedness; elaborate cinematography emphasizing multiple planes within a given space; huge buildups leading to huge sword battles; the shifting emotions on many faces at once; and fluid shots using, at times, hand-held cameras (held by two or three men each, since the equipment was still quite heavy in the 1960s). The results were bold and daring in their time, and they hold up impressively 40 years later. They form a linked chain of essential samurai cinema. (end)
“Eleven Samurai” and its companion movies, “13 Assassins” and “The Great Killing,” are available on DVD at your local video store; or visit www.animeigo.com.
Andrew Hamlin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.