Let’s square this up right away: Bushido films are not for everyone.
For starters, these flicks – usually detailing the morality tales of samurai warriors – rarely tend to be told at breakneck pace. They don’t usually employ too many storytelling techniques all that similar to Western film sensibilities, a surprise given how many Western films are based on samurai pictures; what I mean here is that, when it comes to editing, the only quick cutting is done at the edge of a sword, but generally that takes place after great posturing and positioning. I’ve heard it said that the pace can be considered somewhat languid by some standards, and I personally think that’s because the core traits of these samurai warriors – trust, loyalty, mastery, and (most importantly) honor – are usually reduced to character beats in U.S. films. For example, Character A says Character B is “very faithful to his cause,” and American audiences accept that; Bushido films will expend five minutes of film to e-s-t-a-b-l-i-s-h Character B’s conviction to a principle. Bushido films “show” stories instead of “tell” stories, and therein lies the fundamental drawbacks.
However, for those of us who embrace this unique form of storytelling, SWORD OF DESPERATION is nothing short of magnificent, a welcome throwback to samurai films of yesteryear with polished acting sharing face time with equally polished swords. Thankfully, the producers avoided the excessive bloodspray so common to lesser Bushido flicks – ones principally capitalizing on gore and violence – though there’s more than a fair share of slicing and dicing on display. Period details are spectacular, and the sum total of these parts is an exceptional accomplishment.
The film opens with a surprise big enough that other films would save it for later: for no apparent reason, a royal guard, Kanemi Sanzaemon (played with the appropriate amount of samurai stoicity by Etsushi Toyokawa), assassinates his lord’s concubine. To his shock, his punishment is mild, as he is imprisoned in his home for one year. As the story unfolds, we learn that Sanzaemon’s wife has died (was that part of what drove him to do what he did?), but he’s able to entrust the care of his home to his niece, Rio (played by the lovely and demure Chizuru Ikewaki). After he’s released from his home – and to an even greater surprise – he’s suddenly promoted back to full status and assigned to serve as his lord’s personal bodyguard. Little does Sanzaemon know that he’s unwittingly become a pawn in a game of royal deception, one that won’t be fully revealed until the cost may be greater than any one man should ever be asked to bear.
The film’s title, SWORD OF DESPERATION, actually refers to a unique sword-fighting maneuver mastered by Sanzaemon. While the audience is teased to see its origins and its development, the grand secret of how it plays into the central story – and the effect it has on these characters – is masterfully hidden away until the film’s bloody conclusion. Also, the story is based on a novel by Shuhei Fujisawa, and that comes as no surprise; the story is heavy with Shakespearean-style political scheming of the palace elite, and it’s layered fairly evenly with consistent plot and character developments right up until the closing frames of the picture. Suffice it to say, every piece to this puzzle has a time and a place in this story, and, like a good puzzle, the complete picture isn’t fully revealed until the last bit is placed on the board.
Even with all the Machiavellian undertones, SWORD remains a quiet, almost uniquely meditative experience. The characters are given brief text introductions at the beginning – some of this is necessary to establish who’s who and to fully appreciate those early events – but everyone’s true motivations (even those belonging to our lead characters) are shaded with healthy bits of screen melancholy. Like Sanzaemon’s deadly expert swordplay, every pose and every movement has its proper place in the story, and these characters are treated no differently, a stroke of brilliant construction by the writer, director, and actors. Like that swift strike of the samurai’s blade, these players spring into action only when called upon – when needed to advance the narrative. As a consequence, the film forces the viewer to pay closer attention to even the calmest of moments because you never know when evil may strike.
SWORD OF DESPERATION received no less than six nominations for the 2011 Japan Academy Prize, including nods for Best Actor (fact: Mr. Toyokawa won), Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing, and Best Lighting. Additionally, the packaging boasts that the film was an “Official Selection” for the World Competition category at the 34th Montreal World Film Festival 2010. Clearly, where recognition carries influence in the film community, the picture is clearly an accomplished piece of cinema excellence.
The disc – disappointingly so – is short on extras, though that’s not all that uncommon with foreign films obtaining U.S. DVD release. It contains theatrical trailers (one for SWORD and then two previews for related Bushido films) and an image gallery from the shooting process, along with some basic program notes for the picture, nothing with any great detail. For Bushido junkies, it would’ve been nice had anyone put some thought into a special feature highlighting the history of samurai films, their evolution, their influence on Western films, etc., but, alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The film is crisp throughout with sharp colors though much of the palette here is largely natural or muted. The sound carries consistently, though there’s very little rise and fall in any of the channels. (Again, Bushido films are NOT about laser-wielding robot fighters from space; most everything – picture and sound and performance – are grounded in as natural setting as can be preserved on film.)
In the interests of fairness, I’m comfortable disclosing that the fine folks at AnimEgo provided me with a DVD screener copy of the film for the purposes of completing this review.
It has been awhile since I have had the privilege to watch a more modern Bushido tale that truly has the spirit of the genre that Kurosawa and Kobayashi had defined in their ‘classics’. Last time I remember that I’ve had that true privilege was when I saw Yoji Yamada’s “Twilight Samurai” and Yojiro Takita‘s “When the Last Sword is Drawn“; even Takashi Miike’s remakes of “13 Assassins” and “Hara-Kiri: Death of … more