This past week I had the pleasure of seeing two films in Japan Societyâ€™s annualJAPAN CUTSÂ film festival. The festival runs from July 7-21, with 32 films (nearly all of them premieres). I was instantly drawn to JAPAN CUTSâ€™ only twoÂ jidaigekiÂ æ™‚ä»£åŠ‡ samurai films in the series,Â Sword of DesperationÂ ã€Œå¿…æ»å‰£é³¥åˆºã—ã€ andÂ The Last RoninÂ ã€Œæœ€å¾Œã®å¿ è‡£è”µã€. The films were wonderful, and I encourage you to seek them out.
Sword of DesperationÂ (2010, dir. Hideyuki Hirayama) is a poised and powerful film of feudal intrigues and expert swordsmen, a fine addition to theÂ chanbaraÂ ãƒãƒ£ãƒ³ãƒãƒ© (â€œsword-fightingâ€) genre. Set in the Edo Period (1600-1868),Â Sword of DesperationÂ has all the genreâ€™s usual devices: a gradual build-up to an outburst of action, an alienated master swordsman, and conflicts of duty and heart.
The filmâ€™s first half beautifully establishes the circumstances, characters and their relationships. Etsushi Toyokawa plays the character Sanzaemon Kanemi, a master swordsman, who serves the daimyo Tabu UkyÅ (Jun Murakami). At the start of the film (set three years ago), Kanemi murders his masterâ€™s favorite concubine, Lady Renko (Megumi Seki), just after the annual spring Noh performance. It soon becomes clear that Kanemi acted to stop Lady Renko from further manipulating the daimyo and damaging the domainâ€™s administration. Kanemi is given a light sentenceâ€”a year of house arrest and a meager pay decreaseâ€”and he is allowed to return to service afterward. Yet, he soon finds himself losing his wife Mutsue (Naho Toda), faced with the affections of his niece, and lost in the intrigues of others, a situation to which blood is the only way out.
While the pacing of the film might feel disjointed and sluggish to the unfamiliar, anyone acquainted with theÂ chanbaraÂ genre is in for a treat. The previous twoÂ chanbaraÂ films Iâ€™ve seen areÂ When the Last Sword Is DrawnÂ ã€Œå£¬ç”Ÿç¾©å£«ä¼ã€ (2003, dir. YÅjirÅ Takita) andÂ Sword of DoomÂ ã€Œå¤§è©è–©å³ ã€ (1966, dir. Kihachi Okamoto). These didnâ€™t disappoint, and neither doesÂ Sword of Desperation. The film has beautiful sets and scenery, a simple but moving plot, and a great twist at the end.
The secondÂ jidaigekiÂ film wasÂ The Last RoninÂ (2010, dir. Sugita Shigemichi), a dramatic and heartfelt epic featuring a blockbuster cast.Â The Last RoninÂ is a very different film fromÂ Sword of Desperation, and is more akin to a made-for-television-movie than aÂ chanbaraÂ film. Viewers will be attracted toÂ The Last RoninÂ simply because of its cast. Koichi Sato and Koji Yakusho give passionate performances and bring the drama to life. Film buffs might recall Koichi Satoâ€™s performances inÂ When the Last Sword Is DrawnÂ andÂ Sukiyaki Western DjangoÂ (2007, dir. Takashi Miike). Itâ€™s hard to tell whoâ€™s more well-known; Koji Yakusho recently starred inÂ 13 Assassinsã€Œåä¸‰äººã®åˆºå®¢ã€ (2010, dir. Takashi Miike) and is famous from his performance inÂ Shall We Dance?Â (1996, dir. Masayuki Suo).
The filmâ€™s story takes place sixteen years after the legendaryÂ chÅ«shinguraÂ å¿ è‡£è”µ (Treasury of Loyal Retainers) incident in 1702, where the AkÅ daimyo (Asano Naganori) is ordered to commitÂ seppukuÂ after drawing his sword and trying to kill Kira Yoshinaka. Historically, the exact reasons Asano had for wanting Kira dead are unclear, but in the end Kira went unpunished. The AkÅ domain samurai (nowÂ ronin), led by former chief retainer Kuranosuke Oishi, patiently plan and wait two years before valiantly avenging their lord by assaulting Kiraâ€™s home and killing him. Sixteen years after the attack on Kiraâ€™s home, the film begins by following Kichiemon Terasaka (Koichi Sato), the sole survivor of the AkÅÂ roninâ€™s attack (the rest committedÂ seppuku). Terasaka was ordered by Kuranosuke Oishi (Kataoka Nizaemon), the AkÅ daimyoâ€™s chief retainer, to not join his fellow warriors as they commitÂ seppukuÂ to follow their lord into death. Instead, Terasaka was ordered to travelJapan to find and help the families of his dead comrades.
On his way to attend the seventeenth anniversary of theÂ chÅ«shinguraÂ incident, Terasaka spots another man, Magozaemon SenÅ (Koji Yakusho), a former fellow warrior who ran the day before the attack sixteen years before. The film follows both Terasaka, who searches for Magozaemon to learn why he ran off, and Magozaemonâ€”â€œMagoza,â€ whom we learn is caring for â€œKaneâ€ (Nanami Sakuraba), a young woman of uncertain lineage. The rest of the film untangles and resolves the many questions brought up: why Magozaemon ran the day before the attack, why he is in hiding, who the young woman Kane is, etc. Youâ€™ll have to see the film to find out how the story unfolds.
All in all, JAPAN CUTS featured two incredibleÂ jidaigekiÂ films. Not to give all praise, Western viewers unaccustomed to Japanese films might find criticism in their length and pacing.Â The Last RoninÂ is over two hours long, and it takes its time developing and emphasizing the emotional tensions.Â Sword of DesperationÂ is somewhat shorter but nevertheless gradually builds to its violent climax. I believe the filmsâ€™ strengths far outweigh this critique, but itâ€™s something to keep in mind. If youâ€™re a fan of medieval Japan, samurai,Â jidaigekiÂ orÂ chanbara,Â you should definitely see these films.