WHEN THE LAST SWORD IS DRAWN (a.k.a. Mibu Gishi Den) is a moving chambara film directed by Yojiro Takita. The film once again occurs during the Meiji Period, a fascinating time for the samurai lifestyle. Films such as Yoji Yamada's samurai trilogy (which I have reviewed before) and even Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai" have portrayed the plight of the Japanese warrior during the closing years of this period. The aforementioned films have examined the impact of the Western influence upon the code of Bushido, the warrior's code slowly gives way to a changing world, where explosive modern ammunition takes the place of forged steel. MIBU GISHI DEN also explores these factors, but at the same time matches its protagonist against unstoppable forces of nature such as famine, unrest such as civil warfare and the development of industry.
The story begins in the city of Tokyo 1889. Hajime Saito (Koichi Sato)is an old man who brings his sick grandson to the town doctor, Chiaki Ono (Takehiro Murata). Ono is in the middle of moving, and while his wife tends to Saito's grandson, Ono entertains Saito with a cup of tea. As they engage in conversation, they find that their lives are connected by a samurai named Kanichiro Yoshimura.
Kanichiro Yoshimura (Kiichi Nakai) is a samurai family man who no longer has the resources to provide for his wife and his children due to low wages paid by his small clan. Reluctantly, he packs up and leaves his loved ones behind so he can make a higher earning in the city, under the well-known clan of Shinsen-gumi. Yoshimura hopes that he will make a better life for his family as a retainer in this faction during one of the most tumultuous times in Japanese history.
This film will not attain its recognition with awesome swordplay choreography. While there are scenes of warfare, a few swordplay sequences dispersed through the proceedings, and it does have the most realistic beheading I've ever seen, "When the Last Sword is drawn" will be remembered for its engaging story line. The intertwining narrative about the life of another petty samurai may have been explored before in Yoji Yamada's trilogy, and it does have the usual samurai ideals of loyalty and camaraderie, family and commitment, Yoshimura's life is seen through the eyes of two men and makes for very moving screenplay. The two perspectives go back and forth, as Ono recounts Yoshimura's past as a sensei in the Oshu clan and Saito reminisces about Yoshimura's later life as an eccentric samurai who is often criticized for his money-making schemes in the Shinsen-gumi clan. It is a very effective approach as the timelines unravel in an emotionally moving manner, the storytelling is set up so that each moment of Yoshimura's life will impact the viewer to an emotional degree. From Yoshimura and Saito's rivalry to their developing friendship, to the courtship of Shizu (Yui Natsukawa), the scenes are a very effective rendering on the perseverance and fortitude of Yoshimura, which is executed beautifully with simple precision.
The film's lush cinematography is aided by the moving music and the wonderful screenplay by Takehiro Nakajima, but the emotional impact is mostly carried by the lead actor; Kiichi Nakai. Director Takita has chosen the right actor to play Yoshimura as his performance borders on emotional poetry. Takita's direction is excellent but some scenes have the dangerous potential to be a little heavy-handed and too melodramatic. Thankfully, Nakai's performance manages to find the proper flow in the sequences that it becomes very moving and full of impact. I can almost guarantee that the last quarter of the film will definitely water the eyes, as Nakai's performance in his final scene is awe-inspiring.
"When the Last Sword is Drawn" is a character-driven chambara period film that gives a focused and captivating look at the last days of the samurai. The film is a very nice companion piece to Yoji Yamada's chambara trilogy* and is a "hidden gem" all by itself. The film is truly a wonderful and unforgettable piece of Japanese film-making in the wide annals of great samurai films. Capturing the raw spirit established by Kurosawa, this film is a rare treat for samurai aficionados. I have definitely become a fan of Kiichi Nakai and look forward to see more of Yojiro Takita's work.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! [4 ½ Stars]
* Twilight Samurai, Hidden Blade, Love and Honor by Yoji Yamada.
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