For those viewers who felt cheated by The Last Samurai’s (2003) distinctly US-centric take on the fin de siecle era of Japan’s samurai, yet felt unsure of where to look for something purer and a little more domestically sprung, Yojiro Takita’s When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003) may be the perfect alternative. Released in the same year and under the dollar shaped-shadow of Edward Zwick’s romanticised ‘epic’, When the Last Sword is Drawn is an example of the current resurgence of ‘chambara’, or jidai-geki, genre filmmaking in Japan. A type of period film, not unlike a Merchant Ivory (except instead of upper-class verbosity we have lower-class violence), chambara are typically set during Japan’s feudal Edo period of 1603 to 1867 and often detail the power struggles between Shogun and Emperor, samurai and sensei, authority and outlaw.
Like the grand narratives of the genre’s other esteemed filmmakers, Daisuki Ito or Akira Kurosawa, Takita’s story casts its net wide over the major events of the Edo period. Using a non-linear, flashback structure to add reverence and nostalgia to the samurai downfall, our tale begins in 1899 with an ageing man called Hajime Saito arriving at a local surgery with his sick grandson. As Hajime talks with the young doctor, he notices an old photograph of a samurai that quickly sparks a flurry of memories. From here, Takita begins his masterful sway back and forth, between the two men pointedly recalling their connections with the photo and the events that lead to it being taken. The individual perspectives of the old man and the doctor gradually introduce to us to the man in the picture, a samurai known as Kanichiro Yoshimura. Yoshimura is a downtrodden samurai who is battling to provide for his impoverished family back home through whatever means he can. He is soon appointed a member of the Wolves of Mito – a clan of soldier samurai who are fiercely loyal and protective of the shoganate, whilst also required to serve the Emperor – and begins saving money to send home. When the beloved shoganate is abolished, the Wolves of Mito are forced to choose sides; do they attempt to preserve the samurai traditions, becoming masterless ronin, or submit to the military might of the Emperor’s modern armies?
Similarities with The Last Samurai seem quite evident, given the main narrative of a destitute warrior forced to choose between tradition and modernity, but the depth of Takita’s inquiry into this historical age quickly distinguishes When the Last Sword is Drawn from that cross-cultural adventure. Free from developing a dominating central character like Tom Cruise’s Nathan Algren, WTLSID has the room to flesh out areas, such as the gestures, behaviour, practices and violence of the age, which Hollywood just couldn’t accommodate. One moment near the beginning sticks in the mind and is indicative of the film’s impeccable production design and loyalty to the genre. In the court of the shoganate a disgraced samurai has been ordered to commit hara-kiri. At the last minute the man refuses to kill himself and begins flailing the sacrificial knife about wildly. He attempts to flea but not before Yoshimura leaps over to him and, from behind, slices off the man’s head with his sword. The staging and (sorry) execution of the beheading is seamless and repeated viewings only serve to further confound as to how it was done.
Minor quibbles surface later on in the film when the pacing begins to waver and melodrama is relied upon a little too heavily. The scene where Yoshimura is saying goodbye to his little girl is needlessly protracted to the point where any feeling for the moment is lost, while the final twenty minutes lose momentum altogether. Takita’s wish to detail the demise of certain characters separately means we lose sight of the samurai as a collective, and when the end does comes any impact from the notion of the group’s downfall has been numbed. That said there remains a great deal to admire here. Despite the slightly marred ending the film still radiates with the kind of twilight and pathos that we get from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and its production values, acting and fight choreography are all top-notch.
As far as the DVDs themselves go, the resolution of the main feature could have been slightly better, while the extras disc contains no English translation for the outtakes or behind-the-scenes footage.