Now running concurrently with the NY Asian Film Festival is the Japan Society film series titled Japan Cuts that includes ten films that are co-presented with the NYAFF. This is a review of three samurai movies, two of which were part of the Japan Cuts festival and that I saw on Tuesday night: Hideyuki Hirayama’s “Sword of Desperation” and Shigemichi Sugita’s “The Last Ronin” (a ronin is a samurai without a master—just like Toshiro Mifune in “Yojimbo”.) The third is a NYAFF “director’s cut” version of “13 Assassins” by Takashi Miike that was shown on July 2nd, and also playing in a shortened form at the Cinema Village in New York that I saw last night.
A colleague at work, who is an expert on Japanese film, informed me that the director’s cut of “13 Assassins” includes scenes that are classic Miike. As someone who appreciates this director’s darkly florid imagination, particularly in his treatment of cruelty and violence (essential elements of samurai movies), I hope to see the director’s cut some day but have no problem recommending the shortened version that has a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This review will make it even fresher.
I imagine that just about everybody has seen at least one samurai movie in their life. Ever since I saw Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” in 1961, I have made a point of taking in every work in this genre I can, treasuring above all the Samurai Trilogy directed by Yoji Yamada, an 80 year old who was once a member of the Japanese Communist Party and on record as saying that he tried to make some reference in his films “to man’s disaffection with society.”
These films are imbued with the bushido (way of the warrior) ethic that stresses blind loyalty to the master, bravery, chivalry, and willingness if not enthusiasm to face death in pursuit of such values up to and including seppuku or ritual suicide. Obviously, if I had to live in a society that was organized around such values, I’d try to find the first boat leaving for a country that eschewed them. But in the highly romanticized version found on the big screen, it’s another story altogether. Or perhaps not, as my comments on the two Japan Cuts films will indicate.
“Sword of Desperation” begins with a Kabuki play being performed in the palace of Lord Tabu Ukyou (Jun Murakami). As the performance ends, the audience remains silent. It is only when Renko (Megumi Seki), Ukyou’s concubine, begins clapping that everybody else joins in. This is an early hint at her power.
As the audience streams out of the recital hall, a samurai named Kanemi Sanzawmon (Etsushi Toyokawa) accosts Renko. Without saying a word, he pulls a dagger from beneath his robes and plunges it into her heart. As she is taking her last breath, he bends over her and says, “Forgive me, madam”.
Kanemi is arrested immediately and the Lord’s vassals are seen discussing what punishment awaits him. Will he be beheaded or forced to commit seppuku? All of them, including Kanemi, are astonished to learn that he will be treated leniently. After spending a year in confinement (house arrest, basically) and having his rice allotment halved, he will be freed. Even more surprisingly, he learns that not long after his release, he will be promoted to become the Lord’s top bodyguard. As we will learn eventually, this promotion was a scheme devised to ultimately punish Kanemi. Since this film might eventually make into general release, I will not divulge how this plays out.
Through a series of flashbacks, we learn why Kanemi killed Renko. She is a villainous creature in the mold of Lady Macbeth who holds a tight grip on her master, persuading him to divert funds on wasteful projects at the expense of his peasant subjects who face starvation as a result of higher taxes. When they protest at his front gates, she convinces him to make an example of the leaders who are beheaded.
The dilemma for those of us trying to get into the spirit of a traditional morality tale is that perhaps one of her greatest sins is being a too powerful woman. Those who would have her put down seem as offended by her intrusions into court deliberations as much as her role in having peasant leaders beheaded. The sexism is almost palpable.
Ironically, “Sword of Desperation” is based on a novel by Shohei Fujisawa, whose “Love and Honor” was turned into the screenplay for the final installment of Yoji Yamada’s altogether progressive-minded Samurai Trilogy. One must conclude that “Sword of Desperation” was simply establishing the context for a samurai’s desperate act without endorsing any of the oppressive social conventions that made Renko a target of the nobility’s resentment. At least we hope so. The fact that we can identify with Kanemi and cheer for him is a reminder that art operates on its own level, independent of the values that any open-minded society holds dear. This, of course, is the paradox of all samurai films.
“The Last Ronin” is a kind of back-story to “47 Ronin”, a historical incident that has been adapted many times in literature, theater and film, including the 1962 classic “Chushingura” directed by Hiroshi Inagaki. This is a story about 47 ronin who took vengeance on the cruel Lord Kira who had forced their master to commit seppuku. After they succeed in killing Kira, they take their own lives. This movie embodies the bushido spirit as well as any I can think of. (In an introduction to “The Last Ronin”, the Japan Society’s film program director mentioned that a Hollywood version of “47 Ronin” will come out next year, in 3D and starring Keanu Reeves no less. You heard it from me first: this will not be competition to “The Magnificent Seven”.)
In “The Last Ronin”, we discover that one of the forty-seven did not die. Kichie (Koichi Sato) was ordered by their leader to travel the countryside and provide assistance to the surviving family members. In the course of his travels, he spots Magoza (Koji Yakusho) in a small village who manages to elude him. Kichie wants to ask him why he ran away from his co-conspirators just one night before the attack on Kira’s palace. The assumption is that he violated bushido.
We learn eventually that Magoza has abandoned the life of a samurai and makes his living as a trader, looking for antiquities that he can sell to the wealthy. He lives in a modest house in the forest with a sixteen year old girl that he has raised from infancy. Again, since this film might eventually make its way into general release, I will not divulge the relationship between Magoza, the young girl he has raised, and the mystery of why he went awol.
As was the case with “Sword of Desperation”, there is a sense of futility in Magoza’s ultimate redemption. There is little doubt that the director Shigemichi Sugita was questioning a core element of Japanese culture.
“Thirteen Assassins” is a remake of the 1963 film directed by Eiichi Kudo. The plot is very similar to “Chushingura”, with thirteen men this time organizing a plot against the evil Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) who is the Shogun’s half-brother and totally out of control, to put it mildly. Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) summons the samurai Shimada to his manor to propose an assassination plot. To help motivate him, Doi introduces him to one of Naritsugu’s victims, the daughter of a peasant leader who had her arms and legs hacked off and her tongue cut out. When Shimada asks what happened to the peasants her father had been leading, she takes a brush in her teeth and writes out the words: “Massacre them all”. This is what Naritsugu cried out just before their deaths. And it is these words that Shimada will act on when his plucky band of assassins takes on a troop of 200 warriors under Naritsugu’s command.
Shimada is played by Koji Yakusho, who played Magoza in “The Last Ronin”. He is an exceptionally talented actor who I would compare to Toshiro Mifune in his prime. That should be ample reason to see this film, without mentioning the climactic battle scene that is Miike at his best. I will only add that a number of Takashi Miike films are available from Netflix, including “13 Assassins”.
Is there any connection between bushido and the predicament Japan is in today, with blind loyalty to corporate heads leading to the disaster at Fukishima? I suppose no more so than there was a connection between frontier lawlessness in Dodge City and the war in Vietnam.
Furthermore, one historian has questioned whether bushido had any real role in the development of the Imperial Army as the killing machine that was made infamous through the rape of Nanking and the ensuing horrors of the Pacific War (not that America was any more civilized in light of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
In an article provocatively titled “Bushidō or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition” that appeared in the May 1994 “The History Teacher”, Karl Friday makes an essential point that the term bushido was not used to designate a code of honor until the late 19th century. There was a code of conduct for samurai but it came into existence in the 17th and 18th centuries when Japan was at peace.
The samurai of the post-medieval era were bureaucrats and administrators, not fighting men. Indeed, there is a reference to this in “13 Assassins” when the leader Shimada says that it might be difficult to organize a conspiracy since so few samurai use a sword nowadays. Further evidence of this exists in Yamada’s trilogy where one of his samurai heroes is a clerk not much different from Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Tale”.
With respect to a desire to embrace death, Friday states that even when the samurai was a practicing warrior, he preferred to use guile than exercise the kind of zealous self-sacrifice seen in a typical Japanese movie, no matter how thrilling the sword play of 13 men against 200 is to watch. One wonders if the medieval era samurai had more in common with the wild west’s gunmen who more often than not were trying to figure out a way to shoot an enemy in the back than meet him at high noon in the village square.
Friday also questions the blind obedience that is so pervasive in these films. He asserts that Confucianism has more to do with this than bushido, a point that makes sense considering how the same kind of authoritarian behavior can be found in Chinese society as well.
He also has some interesting things to say about the actual historical incident that gave rise to the 47 ronin literature and films. Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a samurai who lived during the time of the incident and who wrote a book on samurai ethics, was leery of the decision made by the conspirators to wait two years before carrying out their vendetta. He said that a real samurai would not have wasted time and should have carried out their attack immediately.
Whatever relevance bushido has to a modern Japanese society that seems stuck in a rut, there is little doubt that there is an authoritarian mentality that sustains an increasingly unsustainable status quo. The persistence of a blindly obedient warrior mentality, however, is not unique to Japanese society as a cursory look at the United States will reveal. The failure of the military to get to the root of war crimes that was widespread in Vietnam and in the “war on terror”, the “corporate mentality” that made the subprime meltdown possible, and more generally the inability of those in power to make capitalism work on even their own terms suggests that a new code of honor is necessary throughout the world. That code of honor has to be based on the equality of men and women and the elimination of social classes that breeds authoritarianism. This period of history, in a time of deep environmental and economic crisis ranging from Daichi to Wall Street, is as good a time to start as any—perhaps better.