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 a Samurai”, while good in their own right, were still remakes and as such, arguably cannot be seen as a definitive modern tale of Bushido. Director Hideyuki Hibayama’s critically acclaimed “Sword of Desperation” has finally given me once again the sensibilities that I have missed in chambara films since Yamada’s “Samurai Trilogy”.
Kanemi Sangamon (Etsushi Toyokawa) is an expert swordsman who publicly assassinates his Lord’s favorite concubine, Lady Renko (Megumi Senki) after the conclusion of a show. Preparing himself for the worst, Kanemi expects himself to be beheaded, but to his surprise, he is merely sentenced to house arrest for the period of one year. Here while serving his sentence, his only companion would be his late wife’s niece, Rio (Chizuru Ikewaki) who would be taking care of household affairs. Finally, the year is up and Kanemi tries to live a quiet life and to settle back to his fief, but instead he is offered the position of chief bodyguard to his Lord Tabu Ukyou (Jun Murakami) by Tsuda (Ittoku Kishibe). Stunned but appreciative, Kanemi is determined to carry out his new duty, even when it means facing down a skilled swordsman called Obiya (Koji Kikkawa)..
We all know that Bushido/chambara movies often portray proud tales of loyalty and of betrayal and “Sword of Desperation” is no different. I do have to admit that while the themes of this film are familiar, the interpretation may be more fresh and original since Yamada’s own Bushido films about a decade ago. I do have to say that there is a definite "Shakespearean" element around its screenplay. The first 60 minutes of the film serve as the means to understand our characters. After the killer opening act, the viewer is no doubt drawn for the need to know the motivations of the murder. The screenplay by Hidehiro Ito (based on Shuhei Fujisawa’s novel) keeps things simple and yet intriguing, as details of Kanemi’s life with his late wife, Matsue (Naho Toda) serve as a way to understand Minami’s moral stances and sense of kindness. The governmental workings of his Lord and the influence of his consort, Renko on such affairs are also revealed. The growing tensions that grow between his Lord and Obiya because of meddling in governamental affairs that lead to cruel decisions. The director amazingly weaves the tale carefully, always maintaining Minami’s stoic stance as a means to express loyalty to his Lord; the viewer begins to understand the possible motivations of Minami’s actions in the first act.
It was a masterful approach that impressed me. The direction and screenplay had me engaged despite the simplicities of such motivations because of the way the director structured its revelations. It was a simple manner of carefully laying down its groundwork that I became invested in the story. By the 61 minute mark, the viewer is then taken to understand why and how Minami was spared from a beheading. Minami is indeed a man of honor, and even he must follow his heart. He prepares for what may become of him, and despite his hopes for the best, in his heart he feels that something may be amiss, and a shadow had fallen on his house. There is also something to be said for the manner the direction builds on its groundwork that made its surprising twist much more effective and powerful.
As with most chambara movies, weak-willed men can be manipulated by beautiful strong-willed women, while strong men have the heart of a good woman behind them. The film also touches on the corruption of authority figures and their selfish material needs. This makes our lead characters much more interesting, as Toyokawa and Ikewaki play their characters as people with needs that express their pureness of heart. I suppose the story wanted to show a theme that good people do exist behind the glamour and lie of the Bushido code; that their loyalty is all that defines such a code despite being alienated from it. This is something that can truly be heart-breaking, one’s own sense of loyalty can lead to one’s ruin and hardship. The direction strongly weaves this element into its screenplay in a subtle way.
As with most chambara movies modern or classic, “Sword of Desperation” has a gorgeous display of sword play that is both beautiful and bloody. The sword fight between Minami and Obiya was simple, and yet beautiful in its simplicity. It was an expression of pure technique rather than something that wallows in bloodshed. The final encounter yielded a gorgeous display of swordsmanship, as Minami stays true to his character; he only kills when pushed to and would rather steer clear of violence. The blood effects have the familiar arterial spray that defined samurai films, albeit the swordplay was built more for the expression of realism than for showmanship as with Ryuhei Kitamura’s Azumi and Aragami. The final encounter was brutal but was necessary to express the desperation of such a struggle.
“Sword of Desperation” is a film whose title becomes defined in its entirety. Desperate situations call for a desperate action and when pushed to the limit, only desperation can lead to a final stroke for freedom. The film was also well acted, the characters were multi-dimensional and the direction was top-notch. There is very little I can say to nit-pick this film, it may feel familiar and yet the execution is more fresh than I would’ve expected. In some ways, the film reminded me of Kobayashi's "Samurai Rebellion" and Minami himself represents someone whose nature may be too good for his world. This may be one of the best films I’ve seen for 2012, and definitely something that will become a classic. This film is a must if you are a fan of Bushido films.
Let’s square this up right away: Bushido films are not for everyone. Why not? 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 … more