Tuesday, December 18, 2007

壬生義士伝/ When the Last Sword is Drawn

(Movie Review)

This film was recommended to me by a student. In fact he's recommended it to several of us Nova teachers. His dedication to this film is so great that he brings his own copy with him to class and will thrust it into our hands at various points saying it is his favorite movie of all time. When he mentioned it had English subtitles, I decided to take him up on his offer to borrow the DVD.

Hopefully he's not reading this, because I'm going to give it a bad review. (Although I did quite enjoy "The Choice of Hercules", which had been another one of his recommendations.)

Essentially this movie follows the "Odd couple/Buddy movie" format. Two different Samurai with different world views and clashing personality are forced to fight together and eventually develop respect for the other. If this had been a Hollywood movie it might have been played for laughs, but instead this movie takes itself very seriously.

My student claimed the movie was historically accurate, but I assume he meant the over-arching background story about the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, and not the buddy Samurai story.
If you don't know what the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate refers to (and I'm just learning a lot of this myself) the short answer is that it's more or less the same story that was told in the Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai". It's the last great battles as the Samurai era was ending in Japan. But because this is a Japanese movie, and focuses on the conflict between Japanese and Japanese (as opposed to focusing on Tom Cruise's journey) the movie adds a bit more depth to the events.

If memory serves this is the first proper Samurai movie I've ever seen (excluding of course American movies like "The Last Samurai" and some off-beat Kurosawa films like "The Hidden Fortress"). But of course Samurai movies are, and remain, very popular in Japan. The code of Samurai ethics (obedience, duty, endurance) still plays a very important part in Japanese masculine culture, but it's a bit more difficult for a Westerner to identify with the movie.

As far as narrative structure, this film is a mess. It's told entirely in flashbacks, but not just one flashback. It alternates between the flashbacks of two different characters. And then to add in the back story, the flashbacks scenes have flashbacks.
All that being said, it's not quite as bad as it sounds. The story never gets so confusing you can't follow it, but it does take away a lot of the forward momentum of the story.

...And the sappiness! What can I say about the sappiness! (I complain about this with just about every Japanese film I review. Maybe I'll just have to learn to suck it up and accept it as part of Japanese cinema). Suffice it to say, they really pile on the tear-jerking scenes in this movie

My biggest complaint is that the film just goes on for two long. It's 2 hours and some 10 minutes, but it feels a lot longer, especially since the last half hour or so is more or less just one long drawn out death scene for the main character. (Especially after learning that the American DVD edit of "Shall We Dance" cut out a lot of scenes, I'm beginning to think the Japanese audiences must have a lot stronger attention span than us Americans. It was all I could do not to repeatedly hit the fast forward button as I made my way through the last 40 minutes of this movie).

Update: After talking with my students, it turns out that this movie is more historically accurate than I initially gave it credit for. I had assumed that it was a fictional story taking place against a historical background, but it appears that all the characters (or most of them at least) appearing in this movie are historical people. For instance check out Wikipedia articles here on the Shinsengumi (the Samurai police force this movie centers around) and Saito Hajime (one of the two main characters in the movie).

Being a history geek, this means I'm going to have to upgrade my evaluation of the movie slightly. In retrospect it was interesting seeing the story about the factional infighting within Shinsengumi. But this movie could still have spent a lot more time in the editing room, and chopped away a lot of the sappiness.

Link of the Day
(Via This Modern World)
90,000 Sign Onto Wexler Call for Impeachment Hearings
Wexler Wants Hearings, where Judiciary Committee members Robert Wexler (D-FL), Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) call for impeachment hearings for Vice President Cheney, has almost 90,000 signatures as of Monday afternoon. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to sign it—the more people who do, the more likely it is big online groups will jump in and make it a cause of their own. Then we could be talking about 500,000 signatories…which in turn would make room for all kinds of good things.

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