Expect Every Man Will Do His Duty
Japan Society’s fifth annual Japan Cuts devotes an evening to back-to-back samurai fare. Among the films included are Shigemichi Sugita’s The Last Ronin and Hideyuki Hirayama’s Sword of Desperation, which bear parallels of story and technique while at the same time remaining separately each its own.
In the face of changing tastes and themes, like our Western -- with which mutual influences are apparent -- the Way of the Warrior has had ups and downs and revivals but remains a staple. Since the kabuki-derived 1907 The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin, for example, the first-named film has had over eighty-six film reincarnations and is set for another next year from Warners (with Keanu Reeves).
Distinct from Hollywood invasions of the genre, however, these two are physical in a subdued way. Long, deliberate, about duty and honor, sacrifice and love, and ending with a look toward the future – pregnancy in one, marriage in the other -- neither will satisfy those expecting extended combats or ingenious weaponry. The “sword of desperation,” as a matter of fact, refers to an in extremis maneuver aka “bird-catcher” or “desperation thrust” that, capping the film’s sole one-against-many bloodletting, seems quite out of place.
The stories start, respectively, with an event one or sixteen years ago, then slowly circle central mysteries surrounding each embedded within developments during the intervening time, and conclude with their heroes’ self-sacrifice either in bloodletting or in hari-kari. That central time of the stories’ present concerns fiftyish former samurais sheltering girls to the age of fifteen and a bit older and, though we might well read in suggestions of incest, rejecting the young wards’ more-than-filial feelings (and in LR also declining the proffered love of saintly ex-courtesan Mistress “Yu” Yuguri).
In the Sword of Desperation court of uxorious Lord of Domain Ukyo, where counselors and retainers grouse at the excesses of First Concubine Renko and peasant farmers are crushed under policies instigated by her, samurai-guard Kanemi Sanzaemon (Etsushi Toyokawa) says “Forgive me” before killing the evil woman. Execution is the expected punishment, but he is sentenced only to a year’s house arrest, cared for by Rio (Chizuru Ikewaki), his late wife’s niece who had come to them fleeing an unhappy marriage.
With flashbacks showing the general unrest and motivation for the assassination, the former warrior grows unkempt, is bathed by the niece whose feelings go beyond family and, the year expired, is not only released but, on the Machiavellian planning of head counselor Tsuba, promoted to personal protector of the ruler who cannot bear the sight of his face.
A third-of-an-hour longer at a hundred thirty-three minutes, The Last Ronin is less concentrated, partly because of the rôle of Kichiemon Terasaka (Koichi Sato), who appears at the beginning (and peters out but pops up throughout) dispensing Squire Oishi’s (Nizaemon Kataoka) largesse to families of his four score ronin who committed ritual suicide after a reprisal raid. “Kichie” stumbles across Magozaemon Senoo (Koji Yakusho), a one-time brother-in-arms who had supposedly run away to avoid death. “Magoza” is presently an itinerant merchant living in a humble forest house with Miss Kane (Nanami Sakuraba), the now fifteen-year-old beauty whom, with Yu’s help, he has raised since birth.
Somewhat paralleled by a stylized puppet show worked in a single time and thereafter intercalated like a chorus, the plot concerns the hidden reasons behind the girl’s surrogate parent’s feigned cowardice, their relationship, his adherence to duty and a pledge to see her happily married, and her childlike but suggestive love for him.
If anything too reflective, much about honor and little about physical prowess, these twin 2010 films in crisp color do not go in for spectacle of costume, combat or landscape but, instead, rely on character and concept.
(The Last Ronin is released by Warner Bros. and rated "R" for an act of violence. Sword of Desperation is released by Toei Company and not rated by MPAA.)