The Betrayal (Tokuzo Tanaka, 1966)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Betrayal.

criterion logoRaizô Ichikawa stars as a naïvely honorable samurai who protects his clan by taking the blame for a murder he did not commit and living as a fugitive for a year. Upon his return, he discovers that the promises to restore him to his former position will not be kept and that he remains falsely accused. Betrayed, hunted, and with nothing else to lose, the samurai must defend his life with deadly force, culminating in one of Japanese cinema’s most daring and brutal sword-fights! Tokuzô Tanaka’s The Betrayal stands among the director’s best works and is a classic example of the cruel jidai-geki film.

Disc Features:

  • New, high definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with Japanese cinema scholar Isolde Standish
  • Orochi, Buntarô Futagara’s 1925 film starring Tsumasaburô Bandô that inspired The Betrayal
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • Plus: A new essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien

For many, The Betrayal (1966) stands as the high-water mark of Tokuzô Tanaka’s career, a seminal work of the cruel jidai-geki where the ideology of samurai heroism was challenged and the moral authority of honour codes was recast into the machinery of treachery, masochism, and brutalization. Based on Buntarô Futagawa’s 1925 film Orochi (The Serpent), The Betrayal stars popular Japanese actor Raizô Ichikawa as Kobuse Takuma, a brilliant swordsman loyal to the Minazuki clan and engaged to marry the daughter of a Minazuki official. When a cowardly murder raises the ire of the rival Iwashiro clan, Takuma honourably agrees to take the fall on behalf of the Minazuki, only to discover later that the solemn vows made to eventually clear his name and restore him to his former position are conveniently cast aside. Left to either run or die, Takuma chooses vengeance, railing against the capriciousness of fate and the dishonesty of self-interested men, and leaving in his wake a long swath of bodies.

The titular betrayal encapsulates the film. Takuma is convinced by a clan leader to become the prime suspect to the craven murder of Denshichiro Kashiyama of the Iwashiro clan. Unaware that his role serves to protect the son of a Minazuki official, one of two men who killed Kashiyama, Takuma abandons his engagement to Namie (Ichikawa’s frequent co-star Shiho Fujimura) and goes on the run for a year, living under great hardship with the understanding that tensions will cool and the incident will be smoothed over in his absence. He returns a year later to discover that his secret arrangement has become lost with the death of the official and the silence of Namie. The only other individual knowledgeable of Takuma’s secret compact is Jurota, a Minazuki samurai who denies any awareness of Takuma innocence as Jurota is secretly the other man responsible for the relevant murder and is now engaged to marry Namie. Takuma is forced to flee again, pursued by Minazuki, Iwashiro, and constables alike, his reputation as a merciless outlaw enhanced with each killing he commits in self-defence.

As Jonathan Rosenbaum has previously noted, there is an intricacy to Japanese grammar that creates an intriguing uncertainty when reading the titles to Japanese films – the Japanese typically have no separate identifier for plural forms of proper nouns.  And while the Japanese title of The Betrayal, Daisatsujin orochi, is sometimes translated as Great Slaughter and the Serpent, it is nonetheless interesting to consider the idea of reading the film’s English title as a plural alternative, The Betrayals. Takuma’s downfall is enabled by a series of small betrayals that value reactionary adherence to samurai honour codes over personal relationships or the basic dignity of considering someone else’s position before condemning them. He is harassed by law enforcement for little reason, sold out by fellow travelers, and even forced to duel with his former sensei who doubts the likelihood of Takuma’s purported guilt yet still proceeds to battle him. It is the final irony of The Betrayal that Takuma is cleared of his charges by demonstrating his bravery through the slaughter of many men, and is then still condemned to die in order to preserve the honour of the clans to which those men belonged. Death, like dishonesty, is inevitable in Tanaka’s film.

Prolific actor Raizô Ichikawa is perfectly cast as the naïvely honourable Kobuse Takuma. At the time, Ichikawa was already in the midst of portraying the half-breed swordsman Nemuri Kyoshiro in the Sleepy Eyes of Death series, 12 films between 1963 and 1969 and twice directed by Tokuzô Tanaka. There, Ichikawa played his anti-hero with stern gravity and self-assured intensity, tearing down those Japanese codes and hierarchies that oppress and exploit. In The Betrayal, Ichikawa and Tanaka display the arc of a samurai’s disillusionment, ending with a comparable bitterness but starting from a position of great naïvety absent in the Sleepy Eyes of Death. Ichikawa’s impassive countenance, which is cold and distant as Kyoshiro, translates as unspoiled in The Betrayal, an innocent baby-face unaccustomed to the idea that supposedly honourable men would actively use their codes of conduct to trap or misuse others.

The Betrayal is most remembered for it hallmark final battle, a lengthy sword-fight where Takuma dispatches nearly 200 men. Tanaka’s film is based on an earlier work of the silent era, Buntarô Futagara’s Orochi, however Tanaka’s version greatly simplifies that story’s conflict. While Orochi‘s main character explicitly contributes to his own downfall by failing to control his own confrontational impulses in the face of dishonourable samurai, Takuma is faithful to his code, fighting only in self-defence and offering consolation to the victimized. Still, a line can be drawn between the principle performances in both films, as Raizô Ichikawa, a kabuki actor as well as a movie star, openly emulates Tsumasaburô Bandô’s very theatrical gestures and expressions during the final battle, Bandô having originally been trained in kabuki as a youngster before transitioning to theatre and film by age 20. Orochi is a rare example of a Japanese silent film that remains preserved and complete today, and a Criterion edition of The Betrayal would not only provide a necessary release for Tokuzô Tanaka’s best regarded film but it would also provide a much needed forum to include the release of this important example of early Japanese cinema. Online versions of Orochi include an impressive performance by a benshi, an accompanying narrator common to Japanese silents, that must really be heard to appreciate its artistry.

Jason Shawn Alexander Iron FistThe Betrayal is a classic samurai film greatly in need of better recognition on this side of the Pacific and a Criterion edition of the film would offer that stamp of credibility and appreciation. For a cover commission, we turn to fine artist and comic book illustrator Jason Shawn Alexander, whose sharp, hitchy style would serve the tense, bleak nature of Tanaka’s film. Alexander’s fine art reveals a talent for portraiture beyond the strong compositions typical to his sequential art, and so MMC! would love to see his take on the distinctive face of Raizô Ichikawa.

Credits: English writing on Tokuzô Tanaka and The Betrayal is limited, but this post owes a particular debt to Paghat the Batgirl’s discussion at Weird Wild Realm. Isolde Standish was selected to provide an interview primarily for her work on masculinity in Japanese cinema, while Geoffrey O’Brien was selected for an essayist given his work on Criterion’s Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman box set that includes films by Tanaka.

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