Films that focus on the rather harsh practices of Bushido have been aplenty among the jidai-geki, but “Sword of Desperation” seems to move the concept a step further, in a rather captivating (if too similar with “Harakiri”) story that is based on the homonymous novel by Hideyuki Kirayama.
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The script unfolds in two time frames, both focusing on Kanemi Sanzaemon, a captain of the powerful daimyo Tabu Ukyou. As the film starts, we witness him killing his lord’s concubine, Renko, in a seemingly unwarranted action that has him, however, suffering only a minor punishment, of one-year house arrest. The second period takes place in the past, in essence explaining the reasons for his actions, mostly deriving from the huge influence Renko had on Ukyou, and the repercussions her decisions had.to both his household and the people he ruled. At the same time, we witness Sanzaemon’s relationship with his wife, as her health declined. In the present axis, the reasons behind Ukyou’s leniency in his punishment are revealed, as much as the role Tsuda, one of Ukyou’s chief advisors, and Obiya, his cousin and the most significant voice opposition again his Renko-driven decisions, played. Lastly, and on a secondary level, the film presents the relationship between Sanzaemon and his wife’s niece, Satoo, in probably the most uninteresting part of the narrative.
The most evident trait of Hideyuki Hirayama’s film is the way the story unfolds, with the two axes being wonderfully implemented, and the build up to the shocking and violent finale being truly exquisite. This aspect benefits the most by the great job done in the editing, with the succession of the time frames being of the best assets of the narrative.
Through this approach, Hirayama may highlight the heroism and nobility of Sanzaemon, but in essence, the film functions as a rather harsh critique of Bushido, who current interpretation is that it was actually implemented as a tool by the daimyos and the shogun in order to control samurais. The tragic fate and the overall hardships Sanzaemon faces throughout the film are a testament to the fact, with Etsushi Toyokawa embodying both these aspects in excellent fashion with his performance. Regarding the acting, however, it is the secondary parts and particularly the “villains” that steal the show. Megumi Senki is a true femme fatale as Renko, Ittoku Kishibe fittingly mysterious as Tsuda, Jun Murakami a vengeful fool that the people around him turn whatever way they want as Tabu Ukyou, and Koji Kikkawa the personification of the chaotic good persona as Obiya.
Add to all that the excellent job in the cinematography by Koichi Ishii, who, with the help of Katsumi Nakazawa’s art direction presents the era and its people with utter realism, and you have an overall very good movie. The only faults I found is that the story is not exactly original, particularly the finale which is too close to “Harakiri” and that the romance arc is underdeveloped, and in essence unecessary.
These, however, are the sole faults of an overall great effort, in one of the best modern jidaigeki we have seen the last decade.