Sunday, February 13, 2011

When The Last Sword Is Drawn

Directed by: Yojiro Takita
Produced by: Nozomu Enoki; Hideji Miyajima
Written by: Jiro Asada (story); Takehiro Nakajima;
Starring: Kiichi Nakai; Koichi Sato; Yui Natsukawa; Takehiro Murata
Music by: Joe Hisaishi
Cinematography: Takeshi Hamada
Editing by: Nobuko Tomita
Distributed by: Shochiku
Release date(s): 2003
Running time: 137 min
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese

The Story (//from the net//): Hajime Saito (Koichi Sato) brings his little son (grandson) to a doctor. At the doctor's home he discovers a photo of a samurai he shared an important part of his past with. Saito's memories take him back to the year 1868 when he was a member of the "Shinsengumi", an unit of elite warriors, who had sworn loyalty to the Shogun. The samurai Kanichiro Yoshimura (Kiichi Nakai) also earns a spot in the Shinsengumi, but Saito hates his guts. In a duel Saito tries to slay the "Farmer"-Samurai, who left his family and betrayed his clan in order to feed his wife and kids. However, he has to realize that Yoshimura is an exceptionally well-versed fighter.
Among his comrades Yoshimura has a rather bad reputation, since he is always making an effort to stay alive in the duels he has to fight, which stands in contrast to what the way of a samurai teaches, and because he tries to get some money out of every task he is assigned to. Nonetheless, Saito has to find out that Yoshimura actually knows what loyalty truely means. Thus, the two slowly become friends in a time where samurais are no longer needed and have their last battle ahead of them...

When a film inspires you to read more about the history of the time it is based on, you should consider the film a success, not only as a narrative artifact, but also as a testament of human history. The 2003 Japanese film, When the Last Sword is Drawn, wins on both counts, despite the fact that the film has its shares of problem (to begin with, it needed some editing, the later half is unusually melodramatic.). Yet, the film not only tells an epic story of a man’s quest to survive and to support his family, it also tells the story of time a-changing, where the codes which once ruled a man’s life are no longer valued, where the medieval Japan is slowly opening up to the modern world (the rifles instead of the sword, hence the title), where the feudal system is in the wane and the rule of the emperor is back (Meiji restoration), where being a Samurai is not the way of life anymore.

When the Last Sword is Drawn is a samurai film no doubt, but it’s a samurai film in reverse. The film is set during the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, a volatile time in the Japanese history, which also served as background for Seven Samurai, perhaps the ultimate samurai film of all time, the very reason why there’s a genre called samurai films, also other renowned films like Twilight Samurai (2002), and the Tom Cruise-vehicle from Hollywood, The Last Samurai (with Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto).

Yet, When... is different from other Samurai films in the sense that the film’s protagonist, Yoshimura Kanichiro, refuses to live by the accepted code of the time, that is, loyalty to the clan, and the ever-willingness to die for honour. For a change, the film gives us a different perspective on Japanese culture’s morbid fascination for death, especially self-killing, the hara-kiri.

When his samurai colleagues talk about death, Kanichiro says point blank: “I don’t want to die.” For this, he is reviled. Before this, he breaks another taboo by leaving his clan and joining a shogun in Kyoto, because his family of wife and three children is poor and in an emotional moment he had declared that he owes no allegiance to anyone other than his family.

The film, directed by Yojiro Takita, gives the central character, Kanichiro, enough grounds to prove and develop his character, and actor Kiichi Nakai uses his body language, his silly, gentle smile, and the way he approaches the other characters, to give us a memorable movie character. Consider the last part the film: A dying Kanichiro’s final soliloquy. On the screen is just Nakai’s dishevelled face, and him speaking. On the hands of a lesser actor, this long scene would have become a drag, but Nikai makes it poetic and tragic; the scene would make you cry.

The film tells the story of Yoshimura Kanichiro from two different points of view, one from the point of view his former student, and a son of his friend (later his son-in-law) from the village in Northern Japan, a place called Morioka, and another from the point of view of a former samurai, Saito Hajime (apparently a historical character, who has his own myths), who were once colleague, shared some unsavoury secrets and later faught the war against the emperor’s army during Meiji restoration.

Through their diverse memories we come to know Yoshimura Kanichiro, a skilled swordsman, who is ready to do anything to earn some money. Slowly, as the story unfolds, we are told why Kanichiro became what he is now, and finally, we come to love and admire Kanichiro, and weep with him during his final redemption.

In patches, Kanichiro may remind you of the Toshiro Mifune character in Seven Samurai, both outsiders and unorthodox, who finally went all out for the cause.

The film had won the best film award in 2004 Japanese academy awards with Kiichi Nakai winning the best actor award. The film had received nine other nominations.

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