We have all seen the chambara films that portray the code of the samurai as something quite honorable and is a privilege to have been part of during the Bushido period. Then we saw the chambara films made by Masaki Kobayashi who presented to us some of the harsh realities of the samurai code and yes, even some are the scathing depictions such as in “Hara-Kiri” (aka. Seppuku) and “Samurai Rebellion”. Well, Kobayashi is not the lone director who has heavily criticized the ways of the Bushido. Another such director is the multi-award winner Tadashi Imai (for some reason his movies are difficult to come by here in the West) that I often resort to VHS copies and Asian Dvd copies. Well, his film “Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai” (aka. Bushido Zankoku Monogatari, 1963) has finally earned a legitimate dvd release in America.
This film is just shocking and almost unbearably depressing because of its powerful revelations about the Bushido code and the Japanese practice of blind loyalty. It also features one of the best performances of a single actor who plays several roles; Nakamura Kinnosuke’s multiple roles is innovative and quite bold for this time, he plays seven roles in the film for which he won best actor in European and Asian film awards. The film is the recipient of the Golden Bear award for best picture in Germany. The film is based on the story by Norio Nanjo "Hiryoho Keifu".
The movie unveils as a salary-man named Susumu (Nakamura) who rushes to the bedside of his fiancé Kyoko (Yoshiko Mita) who has attempted suicide. Because of this incident, Susumu’s mind spirals to the past as he recalls the journals of his ancestors and he remembers his family history. The film becomes narrated by Susumu in his mind as we see the details of the Likura clan n his mind’s eye…
His memory goes back after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 when his ancestor Jirozaemon (Nakamura) is forced to commit seppuku to take the blame for a failed battle to protect his master. Many years past, His son Saijaemon (Nakamura) is placed under house arrest when he insisted to summon a physician for fear for his master’s life. Then his great grandson, Kyutaro (Nakamura) is made into a ‘page’ for the current clan leader in the Tenmei period, Hori (Masayuki Mori) commands the young man to keep his bed warm. But when one of his courtesans proclaims her love for Kyutaro, the anger of the clan lord proves beyond bounds.
Later, another ancestor with the name of Shuzo (again Nakamura) is a loyal, skilled swordsman-samurai in the service of his fief lord (Ko Nishimura) who also saves his life during a scuffle with some farmers. He orders him to bestow his daughter (Kikko Matsuoka) to him as a bribe to convince his superior to forget about his bumbling mistakes. The corrupt and cruel lord then develops a fancy for his wife, Maki (Ineko Arima) and commands her to serve him tea. But when his intentions prove to be more lustful, Maki commits suicide and Shuzo is ordered to bear house arrest for his wife’s defiance. But things prove much worst for Shuzo, as his daughter Sato had returned and is once again ordered to become a courtesan for the corrupt lord Hori.
Now many years forward In the Meiji restoration period, Shingo (Nakamura) takes in a sickly former fief lord but the crazy old man lusts after his fiancé Fuji (Satomi Oka) and during the Sino-Japanese war, another member of the Likura clan is ordered to fly a kamikaze attack. Now, Susumu is faced with a similar dilemma in this modern day, as he can either follow the wishes of his superiors or do what is right in his heart…
I apologize for the extensive summary and for some spoilers (believe me, they are minimal); but it feels as if I need to elaborate on the atrocities I’ve seen in the film. The screenplay of the film captures the same basic idea and quite frankly it is all about the corruption of the Japanese authority figures and how they abuse their power. The dramatic impact of the film’s narrative is truly fascinating, as we see the similar situations arise in 7 generations of the Likura family. The film captures a strong exposition that things never changed, from generation to generation, that men in power will always abuse those they can, and the Likura clan is always in the receiving end of this ‘bad luck’. I know it feels somewhat manufactured, since the family can’t seem to catch a break, but they were sworn to become servants of the same lords and their families, so a family serving one family can suffer the same atrocities. Sometimes there is such a thing as blind obedience, and the Likura family feels indebted to these lords for bestowing them favor.
Western audiences may have some difficulty relating to the families’ sense of honor and principle; but they did exist during the code of the Bushido. What made the film work was the fact that Nakamura is such a fantastic actor and rightfully named best actor in several film awards. He is like a chameleon that he adapts to his different roles, and I had no issues believing that he was portraying different roles. The supporting cast is excellent as well; the lords were easy to hate and it is to be noted that the women should be commended for coming up with such stellar performances. Ineko Arima (plays Maki) stands out as the ever-dutiful wife who chose death over dishonor. Masayuki Mori and Shinjiro Ebara’s portrayals provoked such a repulsed feeling as I saw their characters play games with their lowly servants. (the short scene where Ebara shoots a rabbit adds some genuine sadistic characterization that made me grind my teeth)
One of the longest (and maybe the most disturbing) tales of the film has to be the one with Kyutaro where he is forced to obey his lord’s lustful homosexual tendencies as he gets marked by his lord’s teeth marks. The one with Shuzo is also arguably the most harrowing as he is taken to lengths that would break the spirit of any man quite easily. I also wondered why the other retainers would allow such injustice to happen, but I suppose the privilege of being ’samurai’ has blinded them to the truth as they repeat: “the life of the samurai belongs to the lord”. You would not believe the lengths of which people can turn a blind eye to; it is disturbing, but it is oftentimes the truth. It is a harrowing, disturbing truth to the injustices and atrocities men are capable of and we sometimes need to be reminded.
Even the Japanese viewers found the revelations in the film quite disturbing and shocking. “Bushido” is an excellent film, I suppose that the one weakness it has is that at times, it feels rather manufactured but I thought it was necessary to get its points across. Those who are expecting a samurai film filled with action may be a disappointed as this film is more a family drama (but there is swordplay in the Shozu storyline). Imai is a director who needs to be as well-known as Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Suzuki and Gosha in the West, and I am glad AnimEIGO took the step to give us a legitimate DVD release.
Highly Recommended! [4 ½ Stars]
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Bushido, a.k.a. “The Way of the Warrior” is the chivalrous code of the samurai that has influenced the Japanese way-of-life for centuries. This epic film spans several generations of a typical samurai family, and illustrates the intricate system of loyalty, honor and sacrifice which bound the samurai in ages past, and which, in many ways, persists to this very day.