As you all know, Ichikawa Raizo is one of my favorite actors of all time. His stock only increased after seeing this hard to find film.
The Betrayal is a black and white cinematography classic that should be more often acknowledged as the great piece that it is. The story is about a naively honorable samurai (played by Ichikawa Raizo) who comes to the bitter realization that his devotion to the moral samurai principles makes him a very vulnerable person. He ends up taking the blame for other’s evil deeds, with an understanding that he will be exiled for one year and restored to the clan’s good graces after the political situation dies down. But as betrayal begins to heap upon betrayal, he realizes he’ll have to live out his life as a ronin at best, at worst hunted down and killed.
The movie opens when a samurai enters the Minazuki clan’s school of Issaka Yaichiro to challenge the master to a fight who is currently away. Kobuse Takuma (Ichikawa Raizo) receives him, and the samurai, from the Iwashiro Clan, calls him into a duel. Kobuse refuses, and the samurai leaves. On his way home, however, the samurai is shooting his mouth off and he is followed by two members of the Minazuki clan and in an act of cowardice, the gum flapping samurai is killed from behind. His clan discovers the murder, and calls for the murderer(s) to be discovered, arrested and punished, whoever they may be. A Minazuki clan official, Kobuse’s soon to be father-in-law, devises a scheme to cover up the scandal: Kobuse will take the blame and disappear for a year while the soon-to-be father in law tries to iron things out even going so far as to say that he will commit seppuku to prove Kobuse’s innocence. Only a fool would buy into this scheme, but as a soon-to-be son in law, Kobuse probably felt obligated to agree.
As we follow his year in exile we see Kobuse degenerate from the upstanding disciple that he was into a soused ronin. But the year in exile is not the heart of this film.
The climax of the film is one of the most detailed, well planned and well executed ones I have ever seen. The integration of a variety of devices (a water well and bucket, ladders, wooden boards, carts, ropes, and several different kinds of weapons), makes Raizo’s sword-fighting worthy of Musashi’s legendary status by enduring one of the most epic battles since Musashi’s clash against the entire Yoshioka school. Typically extended movie fights tend to become superfluous after a while, particularly when the hero never tires or otherwise loses his edge due to battle fatigue, but here, after wave upon wave of assaults, Raizo physically deteriorates, starting on his feet and eventually rolling around in the dirt. He becomes parched, thirsting for water, his hair disheveled, his hand so tense that he can’t let go of his sword even after it is broken and his face is in pure agony. For Kobuse, this is more than a fight; it regresses into an almost reptilian rage to survive.
Even after he is acknowledged as innocent, samurai pride will not permit the carnage to stop. Whether or not he can survive, with our hero’s hard breathing, staggering exhaustion, at times barely able to stand, it is tortuous and agonizing to watch him. The final images of Raizo’s worn-down figure barely still standing above the carnage, with his girlfriend (Kaoru Yachigusa) knelt before him, has less a sense of victory about it than a sense of appalling disgust with a warrior culture that could lead to such a monstrous moment.
A majority of chambara fans (especially those who love samurai for their “exoticism”) probably just watch for the Cuisinart effect, and really don’t care about the nuances of culture and history that may be gleaned from such movies. This is a film that can be appreciated by that lot, and also by those who have a more serious, more academic interest in samurai life on film. Why The Betrayal this isn’t as famous as some other chambara film from the 1960’s is a question I can’t answer. The bottom line is that The Betrayal is arguably the legendary Ichikawa Raizo’s best performance.