Saturday, April 03, 2010

No Bullshido Here-Animeigo's "Bushido: The Cruel Code Of The Samurai"

As evidenced by the recent post covering History Channel's "Samurai" special, one of the most frustrating and constant things we on the SA have to contend with are the misconceptions associated with Bushido. The idea that "All Samurai followed a chivalrous code of ethics known as 'Bushido' that emphasized honor, loyalty, and bravery unto death" has been branded onto the minds of many westerners from the time of Nitobe Inazo's book "Bushido: The Soul of Japan" to the hijinks of Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai". We usually refer to this as "Bullshido". Therefore, it's a real pleasure to review Animeigo's recent DVD release of 1963's "Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai" (Bushido Zankoku Monogatari). Finally, a film that eschews the glorification of a code that never was and shows the dark side of just what such a system would entail!

And dark it is, in spades. During the course of the film's 123 minutes, the viewer will bear witness to murder, executions, suicide (ranging from oibara/jushi to kamikaze), rape, filicide, castration, homosexual enslavement, insanity, humiliation, corporate espionage, fetishism, and all manner of cruelty-all committed in the name of Bushido. While there's nothing all that graphic in the film (with much of the violence relatively bloodless or implied), it maintains its power from beginning to end. Director Imai Tadashi's film won the 1963 Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear Award for Best Film along with garnering a Japanese Blue Ribbon Best Actor Award for star Nakamura Kinnosuke.

The film opens with Ikura Susumu rushing to the hospital to be with his fiancee Kyoko, who has overdosed on sleeping pills. Susumu berates himself for his as yet undisclosed indiscretion in the name of loyalty that has led to this. He muses over the family records he recently discovered at a local temple that make this incident only the latest in a long chain of tragedies brought on by a culture of total obedience. While waiting for Kyoko to emerge from her coma, he runs over them in his mind...

The first vignette opens in the Keicho era with Ikura Jirozaemon Hidekiyo, having been made a ronin after Sekigahara, being employed for his skill with the spear by clan minister Hori of the Yazaki of Shinshu (Shinano Province). Hidekiyo pledges his unswaying obedience and loyalty to his lord, even unto death-starting things out with a scene typical of most jidaigeki films. Years later, the clan is taking part in pacifying the 1638 Shimabara Rebellion. When a desperate night attack is launched by the peasants against the camp of the Yazaki, the clan's lack of vigilance results in not only their buildings being destroyed by fire but also the neighboring camp of Lord Kuroda. Although Hidekiyo's spearmanship ended the assault, amends must be made to the Shogun-but what must be done?

Moving to later in the Kanei era, the action picks up with Hidekiyo's son, Sajiemon, who is a page to the old lord. Sajiemon is placed under house arrest when he offends the lord by suggesting the clan doctor be summoned when the old man falls ill. The lord moves closer and closer to death, but shows no sign of forgiving Sajiemon, placing the future of the Ikura clan in jeopardy. The fate of his wife Yasu and son Kyunosuke hangs in the balance. How to prove his loyalty to the clan and ensure that the Ikura are not once again turned out as ronin?

While the first two stories are certainly tragic enough, things begin to get REALLY nasty in the third. Here in the Genroku era, Ikura Kyutaro Tomoyuki has succeeded Sajiemon's son Masanoshin as head of the clan. He's a young student in the clan's Shoheizaka Academy who catches the eye of his lecherous lord Tanba-no-kami when he arrives to present birthday wishes. Kyutaro is ordered to report to the lord and begins to feel a growing sense of dread when one of the Lord's concubines, Lady Hagi, complains that the Lord always sends his 'pretty boys' to her to prepare. In no time at all, Kyutaro has been rudely initiated into the ways of Shudo (here referring to homosexual relations among samurai, usually between an older powerful man and a younger one of less status). While this wasn't an uncommon situation in medieval Japan and was quite acceptable by the standards of the day, it comes across strongly as enslavement and rape here (since Kyutaro isn't what you would call a willing participant, only being cowed when Tanba-no-kami tells him it's just another way to 'show your loyalty'). Things get even sleazier as the Lord 'gifts' Kyutaro with his discarded clothing-ranging from a kimono to a vest and eventually his underwear. Again, this would indeed be considered an honor by the standards of the day, but tends to leave modern audiences a bit sickened. The Lord also seems to enjoy a bit of s & m with his lovemaking, inflicting a painful bite on Kyutaro and warning him to stay away from women. Seemingly resigned to his fate, Kyutaro's world get even worse when the Lord manipulates him into being alone with Lady Hagi with rather predictable results-and the denouement to this episode will leave every male in the audience cringing and grimacing.

Now comes the most twisted and disturbing story of all-that of Shuzo, head of the Ikura family in the Tenmei era. Shuzo is the clan's most skilled swordsman and master of the "great sword of darkness", a technique that allows him to strike effectively while blindfolded. He has a seemingly wonderful life with his son Jujiro, daughter Sato, wife Maki, and friend and future son-in-law Kazuma. Although he saves his lord's life by striking down a peasant that attempts to assassinate him, Shuzo is subjected to a mind-numbing litany of injustice and humiliation at the hands of an intensely sadistic, warped, and sexually charged daimyo. This is the film's dramatic high point, and Imai pulls out all the stops. Having lost several members of his family to the lord's depravity, Shuzo is given a chance to have his 'crime' of finally getting the courage to remonstrate the lord forgiven. All he has to do is use the 'great sword of darkness' to execute two criminals. What follows is one of the most disturbing tableaus in samurai cinema, with Shuzo becoming an utterly pathetic and broken man.

Following this is an incident in the Meiji era where Ikura Shingo, a rickshaw driver and student studying for the Japanese bar, takes into his household the dispossessed, feeble minded final lord of the clan. Shingo hopes that if the lord recovers, the Emperor will make the lord part of the aristocracy, increasing the prospects for Shingo's career. However, it looks like the only thing the lord seems interested in is Shingo's fiancee Fuji. How Shingo reacts to this is possibly the most troubling scene in the film.

The sixth story is a short one, showing Susumu's older brother Osamu, a pilot in the 3rd Mitate Squad in World War II. Time is running out for Japanese forces as the Americans close in on the home islands-and it doesn't take a crystal ball to see what this will mean for Osamu.

Finally, the film comes full circle and returns to Susumu. We learn that under pressure from his boss, he has asked his fiancee Kyoko (a typist at a competing firm) to steal a budget estimate for a major construction project. Despite having misgivings (her boss is a longtime friend of her family and has treated her well), she does so and for her efforts is asked by Susumu to delay their marriage. After all, it might raise questions about how his company beat out hers for the bid. Feeling used and abandoned, she attempts suicide. Will Susumu be the Ikura that breaks the cycle of blind obedience to an uncaring 'overlord', or will he continue to be the steadfast company man?

This is a film that carries the stamp of Director Imai from start to finish. Imai was a confirmed Marxist (except for a period during WWII where the government forced him to make propaganda films), and the 'class struggle' of Marxism is reflected not only in the virtual enslavement of the Ikura but also in the hardships and punishments handed out to farmers (being sentenced to death by bamboo saw for the crime of appealing to a minister). Imai infuses each episode with a healthy dose of melodrama, concocting scenarios so extreme that they sometimes seem more like a nightmare than something that was really happening. Imai's skills in telling the story makes it all seem natural and believable. Taking this approach clearly spells out the abuses that would have flourished under a system run under the auspices of Bushido. This is symbolically shown when the body of a character who has been backed into committing suicide is 'honored' by having a flag bearing the mon of the Tokugawa Shogun draped over his body. When loyalty is expected to be absolute, there are no recourses for those at the bottom. Any action, however innocent, can be deemed a crime by those in power. In the early 60's, this would have found an audience ready for the film's message. Japanese film in general and jidaigeki in particular were beginning to embrace fare that questioned traditional values, leading to heroes who fought the injustices of a rigid class-structured society (such as Nemuri Kyoshiro or Zatoichi). About the only complaint we had with the film is that the high point comes too early-after the episode involving Shuzo, everything else seems somewhat anti-climatic, albeit effective.

It would also seem Imai is something of a feminist. The female characters in the film are almost to a fault stronger than the men, refusing to kowtow to the whims of a warped lord and embodying the true spirit of honor. At one juncture Fuji seemingly points this out, asking Shingo 'What kind of a man are you?'. As a group, they function as the film's spiritual center and grounding, acting as a foil to the actions of the men. Even the seemingly weak and suicidal Kyoko succeeds in driving home her point to Susumu.

Star Kinnosuke, who turned in dozens of excellent samurai roles, is often overshadowed by the better known stars such as Mifune, Nakadai, Katsu, or Ichikawa, but has the role of a lifetime here. He plays all seven scions of the Ikura shown in the film, and one role even has a 'middle aged' and 'old' version. He's completely believable in every role and each character is differentiated. Hidekiyo is a grizzled war vet who takes a practical approach to everything. Kyutaro is a young 'pretty boy' who, after being defiled, croons to his lord in a high pitched falsetto. Shuzo does a 'Nakadai'-moving from brutally efficient middle-aged swordsman to a wasted shell of a man, aged well beyond his years. Shingo could be the know-it-all college kid next door. Many actors are praised for their range, but few have over the course of their career managed to show convincingly the range that Kinnosuke shows in just this one film. He deserves more attention among jidaigeki fans, and looks like he'll be getting it in Animeigo's upcoming "Musashi' boxed set.

Interestingly enough, the film comes across at times as being part of the Japanese horror tradition. This is reflected in Mayuzumi Toshiro's score, early on using a harpsichord to produce a jarring and unnerving mood. Other parts of the score sound much like the music used for other contemporary kaidan rather than that used for jidaigeki. The lighting and cinematography also tend to give characters that 'horror movie', shadowed look. A scene where a character makes an impossible request of his lover is foreshadowed by his extinguishing of a light, plunging the scene into darkness. An attractive young woman is boxed up and presented to a corrupt samurai as a 'Kyoto Doll', considered nothing more than a toy for his amusement. The sound of a simple jangling handbell associates itself with evil. Crazy skewed camera angles are used in several scenes to emphasize the horror of the moment. While there's nothing supernatural going on, approaching the film in this way helped to underscore the abuses being put on display.

Animeigo has delivered a good looking print and upholds its reputation for producing a detailed and accurate translation, complete with on screen cultural notes. They even translate the ENTIRE cast list, something rarely done in the west (but appreciated by those of us who like to 'actor spot'). The care put into this release is on display from the opening menu. Here black and white photos of the 'seven generations' emerge from the top and bottom of the screen to close like a set of jagged teeth, and the photos are slowly filled in with sickly looking colors that set the stage for the horrors to come. The extras will be of particular interest to readers of the Samurai Archives. The Samurai Archives Samurai Wiki was used as a source for many of the cultural notes (which give abundant background on all the eras the film covers). In addition, an essay on the history behind Bushido by film historian and Samurai Archives staffer Randy Schadel is included that amply illustrates how samurai behavior usually fell far short of the idealized version of Bushido. Rounding out the extras are trailers (two different ones for this film plus ones for Shinsengumi, Kon Ichikawa's 47 Ronin, Shogun Assassin, and Samurai Assassin), an image gallery, bios for Imai, Nakamura, and Mita Yoshiko (who played Kyoko and who is still active in Japanese filmmaking-she was in Battle Royale 2), and a short essay that gives the traditional view of Bushido. The extras do a solid job of complementing the film's content as well as expanding on some of the issues it brings up. Short of some of Criterion's more elaborate releases, no one does extras for jidaigeki films better than Animeigo.

In our opinion, this film should be required viewing for anyone with an interest in jidaigeki films, if only to balance the surfeit of 'noble ronin' and 'glorious samurai' films out there. It'll give even the worst 'modern sammyrai' pause to consider if following the tenets of Bushido is such a good idea after all! There's no 'bullshido' here-just excellent performances, a compelling well-told story, and a first rate package of supplements. You can order 'Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai' directly from Animeigo or at Amazon through the SA store.


  1. Good review. I watched this film several weeks ago. Definitely one of the better samurai films I have seen.

  2. Ok now that I have heard you and Tornadoes write about this I will definately have to check this one out! ありがとう!

  3. Thanks! It's brutal, but you should still find it to be a rewarding two hours.