There have been many great samurai films, masterpieces of drama, action, comedy, the whole gamut of genres and film styles. Like the Western in the US, the samurai film, the jidai-geki (films set in the time before Japan's modern era), began in Japan from the very birth of celluloid. It flourished for decades and, just like the Western, the well began to dry up. It was also a matter not just of film makers running low on ideas, but of changing times, the period film being considered quaint. While action fantasy samurai action flicks kept being made in the 80's and 90's, the dramatic samurai film was all but dead. But, every now and then, something old can find itself resurrected,
When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003) is based on a popular two-volume novel by Jiro Asada. The story involves the members of the Shinsengumi group of samurai who balked at the changing times in 19th century Japan, the dissolution of the feudal system, and were unwilling to accept the defeat of the Tokugawa Shogunate at the hands of the Emperor's Imperial army. Their exploits, historical and fictionalized, are a mainstay in Japanese culture, one of the many tales used to exemplify the samurai spirit and its noble, unwavering dedication.
The film begins is 1899, around thirty years after the Shinsengumi made their last stand. A surviving member of the group, Hajime Saito (Koichi Sato) is now an old man, a grandfather, taking his feverish grandson to the doctor on a cold snowy night. In the doctor's home he spots a picture of Kanichiro Yoshimura (Kiichi Nakai), a fellow Shinsengumi samurai, and a man that Saito says, he vehemently hated. Saito was so repelled, he actually tried to murder Yoshimura the first night he met him.
The film is structured in flashbacks with Saito and the doctor recalling their connections to Yoshimura. Based in Kyoto, the Shinsengumi held an open call to samurai to join their ranks, a call that the low level, country bumpkin Yoshimura answered. Yoshimura was odd, a gifted swordsman, immediately given a good position as a sword teacher, indifferent enough to calmly perform an execution, but personalitywise, a total, greedy, goofy grinning rube, who salivates and giggles over his payment and unashamedly asks for more than he is given. To Saito and most everyone else, Yoshimura clearly has the fighting talents of a samurai but absolutely none of the dignity or demeanor.
Through the doctor and Saito's reflections, we get to see initially contrasting views of Yoshimura: Saito's begins with hatred because of jealousy and dislike for Yoshimura's attitude, the doctor's with respect, because he knows Yoshimura's background and the struggles and sacrifices he made in order to provide for his family. What is interesting is how we see Yoshimura go from a sort of weasel to a hero, how initially he seems to lack all of the honorable traits of a samurai, putting his personal gain over his lord's, yet everything Yoshimura does is because he and his family lived in absolute poverty under his old lord. He had to abandon his other retainers, a flagrant, dishonorable act, but when it comes time to sacrifice for the Shinsengumi, he goes above and beyond the call of duty.
In the US, director Yojiro Takita's best known film is probably the fantasy action flick Onmyoji (he also helmed and wrote the sequel). But watching Onmyoji or When the Last Sword is Drawn cannot prepare you for his scattershot, grim comedy Made in Japan, the offbeat drama Himitsu, or the satire of The Yen Family. He's also apparently made a thriller, a romantic comedy, and who knows what else. His latest film is another off the wall, action fantasy called Ashura. Of the genre hopping films I've seen from Yokiro Takita, none particularly hint that there is a great film maker behind the camera. A solid, workmanlike director, sure, but if you'd ask if I thought he was up to the task of a classic samurai drama, I'd say, "No." Turns out, I'm right.
When the Last Sword is Drawn is a good film but it is by no means a masterpiece. The real problem lies that the essential framework has all the qualities and materials for an award worthy, grand samurai drama. The problem is the execution feels too much like everyone behind the scenes thought, "Gee, golly, we've got the makings of an award worthy, grand samurai drama." There are moments that just feel terribly contrived, like they should be accompanied by an alarm bell signaling "Get out your hankies, folks, here comes the tear-jerker." But, admittedly, I'm the kind of jaded guy who laughed at the end of Million Dollar Baby because it seemed so patently adhering to the rules of Drama Screenplay Writing 101. I found myself doing much the same when a character in When the Last Sword is Drawn gives an amazingly drawn out, third act, death bed monologue.
That is not to say When the Last Sword is Drawn isn't immensely enjoyable. It has solid performances, lavish sets, and provides a very humanistic view of the working class ranks of the samurai. The problem is, it just is not great and provides another example of what I stated in my first paragraph: when a genre thrives, it becomes harder and harder for films to live up to the masterpieces that emerged before them. It is bad enough for the makers of When the Last Sword is Drawn that they have to go back to 1937 to try and live up to a working class samurai film like Sadao Yamanaka's Humanity and Paper Balloons, much less the fact that a mere year before Yoji Yamada made the stellar and far more emotionally effective Twilight Samurai, which also featured a poor samurai and his struggles to provide for his family.
At this point any rational person should be saying, "Okay, John, but I haven't spent half my life devouring samurai films and have no idea what this Twilight of the Paper Balloons is." Like I said, When the Last Sword is Drawn is by no means a terrible film. It has a fine story and characters that reveal many layers throughout the course of the film's journey, a journey that finds a few hack drama stumbles, sure, but it is by no means an unsteady path. Those with a casual acquaintance to samurai films, an encyclopedic knowledge, or no knowledge at all should appreciate this inspirational tale of a samurai's dignity.
The DVD: Wellspring.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The print appears pretty clean; however, the transfer is a tad noisy. The image is a tad bright with a loss of shadow details. As a result the contrast, color, and sharpness loses a bit of vibrancy. It is sort of middle of the road, appearing okay, but definitely missing the crispness that would add to the films grandeur. Checking around, I found the UK and Korean additions also have some issues, so Wellspring wasn't alone in being unable to get a perfect transfer.
Sound: 2.0 Japanese language Stereo track. Optional English subtitles. The Japanese, UK, and Korean releases all boast superior audio tracks with some 5.1 and DTS mixes. Wellspring, ever being the underachiever, just go for a basic Stereo track. It is a fine job, not spectacular, with clear dialogue, good atmospherics, and fairly heady score. The subtitle translation is very well done with no glaring grammatical errors.
Extras: Trailer.— Behind the Scenes (37:00).— Interviews: Director Yojiro Takita (10:19), actors Koichi Sato (6:18) and Kiichi Nakai (6:45), and writer Jiro Asada (13:02).
The extras are very informative. The interviews provide the usual lip service, with the actors bits recorded on set while they were still in the midst of filming. The Behind the Scenes extra is really neat. Japanese and Korean DVD producers have a good habit of making these behind the scenes featurettes that don't act like propaganda promo pieces and instead, literally, just show you different scenes being filmed. You get a good sense of the scale of the production and the earnestness of everyone involved.
Conclusion: When the Last Sword is Drawn is a decent, if overly sentimental and protracted, samurai drama. Wellspring do a passable job with the DVD release, delivering a fair transfer, a couple of nice extras, and a basic audio track.