Tokuzo Tanaka will most likely never be mentioned in the pantheon of Japanese directors. For someone who started out as an assistant director to Kenji Mizoguchi, he doesn't seem to have carved out his own niche or acquired those qualities that would mark him separate from the legion of bread-and-butter directors that slaved away in the Japanese studios of the time. Whatever passing popularity the most well known films in his oeuvre have enjoyed is mostly a byproduct of the marketable name franchises he worked in, yet THE BETRAYAL suggests a strong classicist gloom one usually expects to get from directors of Masaki Kobayashi's calibre.
Indeed it is Masaki Kobayashi the opening of the film brings to mind, an evocation of that particular gloomy kind of ancient Greek tragedy transposed in a Tokugawa Japan setting where social injustice is allowed to be perpetrated by a caste of people who can afford to hide the injustice behind a rigid samurai ethos, a skewed code of military honor that can't afford to be proved wrong or found guilty because that would negate that very semblance of honor which sustains it, because a samurai vassal can privately say "we were wrong, you are not the killer we've been looking for" but can't admit the same publicly for fear of dishonoring his own clan.
As good as the central premise of the film is (a samurai vassal agrees to take the blame for a murder he didn't commit for the sake of his clan and exile himself from his home and wife but in the condition that his name will be cleared in one year), as simple and brilliant and classic and lending itself to the combination of gripping revenge drama and scathing anti-samurai critique that made SEPPUKU such an astounding film, the middle of THE BETRAYAL is a bit too disjointed and scattershot, despite the occasional bout of swordfighting spread a little too thin and allowed to sprawl over a dozen different places and encounters that more often than not happen because the plot must be forwarded along. A convincing reason why the exiled samurai takes a peasant as his sidekick for example is never given. He just tags along for the ride so that he can betray Judas-like his master in the end. When the samurai is wounded, a beautiful woman magically comes along to heal him back to life, and whereas this kind of episodic nature is to be expected in a Nemuri Kyoshiro b-movie, the kind of pulpy chambara Raizo Ichikawa and Tokuzo Tanaka knew all too well, it fails to milk the brilliant premise to its full potential. The drama between hunters and hunted is never allowed to gestate and mature past a quick swordfight. Even when the exiled samurai, now hunted by his own clan too, has to face off with his sensei, the outcome lacks the dramatic punch of a Kobayashi or Okamoto, not the dialogue or action but the silent gloomy calm before the storm.
In the end Tanaka almost redeems himself for every opportunity missed by staging one of the most gigantic swordfighting spectacles in chambara history, a giant set-piece that involves Raizo Ichikawa single-handedly cutting down three armies of extras, a fight that were it not for its lack of blood and nihilism would rank up there with the best in LONE WOLF AND CUB. The most telling moment of what's good in the film happens in that fight. Having disposed more than 100 enemy soldiers, Raizo's sword breaks and he's been clutching the grip for so long and so hard that he has to unlock his fingers one by one so he can pick another sword.
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