104 min, B&W, Japanese (English subtitles)
Review © 2007 Branislav L. SlantchevWith the possible exception of Sword of Doom, this has got to be the most nihilistic Japanese jidai-geki I have seen.
|Ryoma reads Kiyokawa's Wanted Poster||Matsudaira hatching the shogunate's assassination backup|
It all starts reasonably enough. Kiyokawa Hachiro (Tamba Tetsuro) is a skillful swordsman of relatively low birth (apparently, he is a son of a farmer). He runs a dojo school and is quite successful in attracting numerous bleary-eyed students as followers. Unfortunately, his low birth keeps him from entering the ranks of the true samurai, the privileged caste under the Tokugawa bakufu. Now, he is allowed to carry swords, so he is no mere commoner, but his only opportunity to mix with the warrior aristocracy ends in disaster. When ??? notices Kiyokawa's famous Seven Stars sword, he invites the owner to his estate. During the formal visit, another samurai challenges Kiyokawa that he has no right to own such a precious weapon, and even offends him by inquiring how he stole it from some noble samurai. "It's not the sword that makes a man," Kiyokawa indignantly replies, "it's his calibre." In other words, it's not birth that is must define one's position in society, but the man's character. This is what he fervently wants to believe but this is fiction in the rigidly stratified society of the stagnant feudal system. His attempt to present his ambitious plan for dealing with the challenge Perry's arrival poses for Japan is laughed out of the gathering as the ridiculous and somewhat pathetic ploy of a country bumpkin to gain access to the corridors of power.
|Kiyokawa enacting one of the actions of a noble swordsman||The "friendly" duel between Kiyokawa and Sasaki|
Naturally, all of this leaves Kiyokawa disgruntled with the shogunate. Ironically, it is his thwarted desire to belong to the system that turns him bitterly against it. Only at one point in the film does he reveal the true background of his ostensibly patriotic support for the Emperor: the scene with the prostitute, and his future mistress, Oren (Iwashita Shima) is where he rails against the perceived injustice of the shogunate. In the end, the supposedly patriotic stance is reduced to a personal grudge born of unfulfilled (and unfulfillable) ambition. For ambition is the one thing Kiyokawa has and yearns for above all else. In this, he is not typical of the shishi who plotted the fall of the shogunate during the 1860s, and this lack of representativeness is mocked by Ryoma, another famous dissident, who tears down Kiyokawa's wanted poster while keeping his own on prominent display. When Kiyokawa asks him why, Ryoma explains that unlike the latter he's not been pardoned by the shogunate. But why is Kiyokawa, the avowed enemy of the system, pardoned by it?
|Matsudaira chastises Sasaki for losing to a mere ronin||Tamba Tetsuro as the complicated Kiyokawa|
His extreme sensitivity to occupying a rung on the society's ladder that is incommensurate with his skills leads him to the ill-advised outburst of violence that triggers his entire downfall. One day during a walk with his students he is accosted by a local policeman (and shogunate spy) who is quite aware of Kiyokawa's pretentious and cannot resist taunting him, perhaps in the hope of getting him to reveal anti-establishment tendencies. Having been baited beyond his endurance, Kiyokawa, whose fencing skills are formidable indeed, decapitates him with a single stroke, so fast that the severed head retains the stupid grin of its once alive owner. This is not an act of courage but a petulant fit of a spoiled child, and Kiyokawa reveals that he perhaps does not have the mettle to belong to the class that he so fervently aspires to. Even worse, he flees the scene of the crime in the most comical and un-samurai like fashion: with unarmed townspeople hot in pursuit Kiyokawa dashes through city streets, naked blade in hand, scaring pigeons and pedestrians. This is not something you would ever see Sanjuro do, despite the latter's low ronin status.
|Kiyokawa's former students trying to understand him||Running away from the townspeople after the murder|
The bakufu, cognizant of the uses of a skilled swordsman driven by ambition, pardons Kiyokawa and, just in case his sympathies with the imperial cause are more than skin-deep, it also hires his future assassin Sasaki (Kimura Isao). The only problem is that at this point they have a different man on their hands. Although the story is somewhat difficult to reconstruct given Shinoda's elliptical and non-linear narrative, the following sequence seems reasonably consistent with events: after Kiyokawa flees his home, the shogunate arrests Oren and at least one of his students. They torture them (especially her) trying to get them to reveal the rogue's whereabouts but Oren dies without telling them (it's not clear that she knows in any case but she is determined to protect the man, seeing in him something we all seem to have missed). Oren's death (again, it is never explained whether it was suicide; all we see is her dead body in the cell, and the bakufu seems to have released the student unharmed) triggers a change in Kiyokawa. He begins actively plotting the bakufu downfall and gathers like-minded supporters. When he meets Ryoma, he tells him that he's going to start a war. When the latter remains skeptical about its prospects (recall that this is the 'rebel' who spends his time fishing or engaging in non-violent civil disobedience like not bathing, for example), Kiyokawa offers a glimpse of the real driving force again stating that there's nothing more exciting than commanding an army. Again, his personal ambition comes to the fore and without Oren there is not containing it.
|Oren getting arrested after the murder||Oren subjected to torture to reveal Kiyokawa's whereabouts|
Oren is an enigmatic character, entirely in keeping with Shinoda's description of women in his films. An unwilling prostitute, she falls in love with Kiyokawa and manages to awaken in him emotions that otherwise would have remained forever buried in his twisted soul. Although her death is ultimately fails in its intended purpose to protect Kiyokawa because he is pardoned for the murder, it is instrumental in revealing the man for what he is. He writes a tender letter to his parents, imploring them to remember her in their prayers and treat her as his de facto wife for she was a good woman. Without her to anchor his ambition, Kiyokawa spirals out of control; there is nothing except his overwhelming urge to gain status that powers him from this point on. She is also the only person to whom he feels comfortable confiding, and he does so, revealing his abhorrence of violence and regret at the wanton murder of the policeman. Shinoda cannot resist poking fun at the samurai code when he depicts Sasaki who has just read about this in Oren's diary triumphantly exclaim that he can kill Kiyokawa: the man has revealed his weakness, for abhorrence of death is the ultimate weakness wholly incompatible with the merciless bushido code. Sasaki can kill Kiyokawa because the latter turns out to be humane, a bitterly sarcastic comment by the director on the feudal past that many glorify or at least view with nostalgia.
|The incomparable Iwashita Shima as Oren||Sasaki instructed from Oren's diary|
The emptiness of Kiyokawa's approach is revealed in the gruesome slaughter at the Teradaya Inn in which samurai rebels are eliminated on the orders of their own lord. Kiyokawa is nowhere to be seen but the following day Ryoma surveys the wreckage and sings a mournful song metaphorically liking Kiyokawa to an unruly colt tied to a tree: when the colt jerks itself free, the shudder will cause the tree to shed its leaves. In other words, Kiyokawa's personal ambition will lead to the senseless deaths of his followers who have bought into his ideas of national salvation hook, line, and sinker. It is not surprising to us but unbelievable to his former students to see Kiyokawa marshalling an army in support of the shogunate. The same master schemer is now maneuvering to be at the head of an army, any army, even one ostensibly entirely contrary to his avowed patriotic purpose. When they confront him, Kiyokawa murders most of them in cold blood, including a wide-eyed youth he had previously saved! His degeneration is nearly complete. What these innocents do not realize is that he has not dedicated himself to a new cause, he is just pursuing his own glory in any way he can.
|Kiyokawa is stuck despite his talents on account of his lowly birth||Oren is Kiyokawa's only refuge and confidant|
Knowing full well that the bakufu would never treat him as anything more than a convenient instrument, to be disposed of the moment he outlives his usefulness, Kiyokawa throws his lot with the imperial cause once again. He marches his unruly mob on Kyoto and then proclaims that he has, in fact, commission from the emperor. A tense night follows in which proof of that commission must arrive or else Kiyokawa's life is forfeit. It does so just in time, the most vacuous important document one can imagine, in which the emperor authorizes Kiyokawa to bring order to the country. Although not all clear what this means, it is a commission, and it saves Kiyokawa, whose tension is revealed by his inability to open his clenched fist in which he has been clasping his sword all night. The funny thing is, this army set off in the service of the bakufu (and opposition to the emperor) but when the imperial edict comes, they all prostrate themselves and the best the more honest ones can do is leave. Shinoda is at it again, irreverently poking fun at the imperial cult, just as dead and meaningless as the bushido code.
|The slaughter at the Teradaya Inn||Ryoma mourning the harm done to others by one whose life is driven by ambition|
But Kiyokawa's ambition is thwarted yet again for this victory brings him nothing. He is not at the head of some victorious army, he is not admitted to the corridors of power, he does not become one of the Emperor's trusted lieutenants. His closest disciple, disgusted with Kiyokawa's shenanigans, abandons him with a note asking forgiveness. As the rest of the naive followers translate Kiyokawa's lame poem into a song, Kiyokawa himself goes to the window and stares emptily outside, then tears up the note and lets the bits scatter in the wind. This is the end of the road for him. He has done everything he can but has achieved nothing. He remains a nobody, and in desperation he indulges in drinks and women. When the assassin finally gets to him (for the bakufu never forgets one who fails to render services it honestly has paid for), he has little trouble dispatching the drunk Kiyokawa. The voice-over narration tells us that when they discovered his body, the ground beneath him stank of sake. In the end, Sasaki's success was not predicated on superior swordsmanship (for we know Kiyokawa can easily defeat him, as he does in the practice match at the beginning of the film), it is also not because of Sasaki's supposed enlightenment from reading Oren's diary, it is simply because of Kiyokawa's utter collapse as a human being that renders him an impotent drunkard. This assassination seems more of a coup de grace, a mercy kill, than murder or retribution.
|Premier Itakura making sure Kiyokawa will be checked||Kiyokawa and supporters waiting for the Imperial Commission|
This complex story is told by Shinoda in his usual inimitable style with unusual framing, freeze-frames that accent the point of a scene, and expert editing that give the sequences a flow that has a jazzy rhythm to it. Shinoda is very unlike Kurosawa or Ozu, and his films have retained a modern feel to them that is still very much in evidence even today. There is a comic-book quality to the sequences with much attention paid to some particular detail rather than the whole scene. The freeze frame is particularly important here, as in the shot of Oren having her first sexual experience or of the samurai who runs his sword through the bodies of his friend as well as his enemy. Shinoda's penchant for the theatrical also finds full expression with moody lighting and abstract shots (e.g., Sasaki training in a no-man's land in a spotlight amid utter darkness), and he utilizes the possibilities of cinema in a way that are now well-established (e.g., when Sasaki is defeated, his blurry vision is represented by an out of focus shot and Kiyokawa fading in and out of the blur). All of this is set to an incredible score by Takemitsu Toru, and it should come as no surprise to learn that many consider this film to be Shinoda's masterpiece.
|Kiyokawa's grip is paralyzed from the tension||The ignominious end in the back alley|
The Eureka DVD in their Masters of Cinema series is superb. If Criterion ever had a challenger that would regularly beat him in direct comparison, these series are it. The video is a crisp high-definition anamorphic transfer at the OAR of 2.35:1, and comes with the original Japanese soundtrack and excellent English subtitles. The extras include an informative film introduction by Alex Cox (best watched after the film, actually) and, more importantly, a 24-page booklet with a superb essay on the film by Joan Mellen, the academic who has written several books dealing with Japanese cinema. As my review makes clear, I disagree with some of her points, but this in no way diminishes the contribution of her essay for me. A superb release of a well-deserving film.
January 7, 2007