Saturday, February 25, 2012

Unasaka, Domain Of Chaos: Animeigo’s “Sword of Desperation”

You won’t find Unasaka Han on any map of Edo Period Japan, but it seems like it was an extremely eventful place. Loyal retainers routinely fell afoul of Ukyou clan leadership and had to be exterminated ('Twilight Samurai' and ‘The Hidden Blade’), children were used as chess pieces in succession struggles ('The Samurai I Loved'), and there was even a case of a blind man dueling an official that had sexually violated his wife (‘Love and Honor’). The latest from Unasaka involves what looks to be an unprovoked assault on the Lord’s favorite consort by one of the clan’s most stalwart samurai, resulting in her death. It's all chronicled in Animeigo's new DVD release of 2010's "Sword of Desperation".

Unasaka Han was a fictitious creation of writer Fujisawa Shuhei. According to Animeigo’s program notes, he based it on the historical Shonai Han (officially Tsuruoka Han) which was located in modern day Yamagata Prefecture. Many of his popular historical novels were set here, including the ones mentioned above that were adapted into movies. The English title makes it sound much like a Nemuri Kyoshiro film from the 1960’s, a series starring Japanese film legend Ichikawa Raizo that often used ‘Sword of…’ to tag its entries. “Sword of Desperation” also shares with it two other things the Kyoshiro series was known for-a healthy distrust of corrupt authority and a climatic final swordfight featuring an exotic, secret sword technique. While you won’t see Kyoshiro’s ‘Full Moon Cut’ (Animeigo will have that covered later in the year with ‘Sleepy Eyes Of Death Box set 3’), the Japanese title for the film will give a hint of what’s to come-“Hisshiken Torisashi”, or the “Bird-Catching Desperate Sword”. And when this technique is revealed, it’s DEFINITELY worth the wait…

The film opens with a Noh play being performed for the benefit of the daimyo of Unasaka fief, Ukyou Tayuu (Murakami Jun). When the performance ends, it’s not the daimyo who starts the applause-rather, it’s his consort Renko (Seki Megumi). Ukyou follows suit along with the rest of the crowd. The daimyo’s party begins to file out when suddenly one of his retainers, Kanemi Sanzaemon (Toyokawa Etsushi), abruptly pulls Renko out of the procession, pins her against a veranda beam, and runs her through with his sword. Either he REALLY disagrees with her opinion of the play, or there’s more here than meets the eye…

…and this becomes even more apparent when Sanzaemon isn’t executed or sentenced to commit seppuku-instead, his stipend is reduced from 280 koku to 130 and he’s placed under a year of house arrest. The reduction in his stipend reduces his household staff to an elderly maid and his niece Rio (Ikewaki Chizuru). While most samurai would surround themselves with as much luxury as possible during their year at home, Sanzaemon takes his punishment seriously-he has his servants board him up inside a small, rough storehouse. During the next year he forgoes bathing, shaving, and occupies himself by wood carving and mulling over the past. During the next year we gradually discover the chain of events that led to Sanzaemon’s murder of Renko.

Sanzaemon is shown in happier days having a picnic with his wife Mutsue (Toda Naho) and Rio. A foreshadowing of his special sword technique is shown when he helps two boys capture a small bird with a stick. While Sanzaemon seems content, conversations with his fellow infantry captain Hoshina Junai (Kohinata Fumiyo) reveal that the clan is experiencing rough times. The weak-willed daimyo Ukyou is dominated by his greedy and haughty consort Renko-she’s the stereotypical ‘evil woman’ of samurai movies (think of Kurosawa Akira’s films ‘Ran’ and ‘Castle Of The Spider’s Web/Throne of Blood’). She thinks nothing of suggesting to Ukyou that the castle’s accountant Anzai be ordered to commit seppuku when he suggests slashing castle luxuries in order to help out local farmers. Instead, the only slashing he’s doing involves his stomach. Renko also wants an expensive restoration done to Koboku Temple (as the temple has agreed to make her father abbot). Crushing taxes push the farmers into a rebellion that is only headed off when the daimyo’s kinsman, Obiya Hayatonosho (Kikkawa Koji), promises to intercede on the farmer’s behalf. Even so, Renko offhandedly remarks that the leaders of the farmers should be killed-and Ukyou has it done.

By now, Mutsue has passed away from a ‘wasting sickness’ and Sanzaemon, seemingly wishing to join her in death, decides to kill Renko for the good of the clan-bringing us full circle and back to the present. Sanzaemon is released from house arrest but still seems disinterested in life, seeing only his niece Rio (who develops an unhealthy fascination with washing his back) and refusing all visitors. He leaves home for a time, embarking on a journey where he visits Renko’s grave (at the refurbished Koboku Temple, naturally) and later runs across Obiya Hayatonosho. Finally, three years after his assault on Renko, Sanzaemon is called to the castle by Deputy Chief Retainer Tsuda Minbu. He’s mysteriously given his full stipend back and made Chief Bodyguard to Ukyou, even though the daimyo obviously despises him. Sanzaemon is told “not to show your face to me all the time” and to take his position outside the room rather than inside. The puzzled Chief Bodyguard offers his resignation to Tsuda but it’s refused. It seems that Sanzaemon and his ‘bird-catching’ sword technique will be needed to deal with the threat of Obiya Hayatonosho, who has had enough of the Lord’s high-handed ways and lack of compassion. Everyone expects Obiya to attack Ukyou at some point, very soon…but is he the real enemy? In Unasaka, one can never be sure where the next treacherous bastard might come from.

Much like ‘Twilight Samurai’, ‘Hidden Blade’, ‘Love and Honor’, and ‘The Samurai I Loved’, “Sword of Desperation” is a quiet, slow paced, introspective film grounded in the real world of Edo Period Japan-at least until the final reel, where all the stops are pulled out and a bloodbath of massive proportions takes place. While this might seem to be jarring and potentially hurt the film, director Hirayama Hideyuki manages to make the transition seamless and a natural outgrowth of the plot. Subtle touches abound in the film-the Noh play in the beginning describes the treachery of a shape shifting fox and its death at the hands of heroic retainers, clearly shadowing Sanzaemon’s upcoming assault on Renko. Daimyo Ukyou’s given name ‘Tayuu’ can be read as “high ranking Noh actor”, also linking the incident to the Noh play. The carving we see Sanzaemon working on during his imprisonment is of a bird-a bird that brings to mind his sword technique. The same carving is later shown to be a treasured possession of Rio. Also during Sanzaemon’s year of imprisonment, the change of seasons is used to both highlight and accentuate the different flashbacks as well as reflecting Sanzaemon’s moods. Even obvious techniques (like detailing each character’s name and position in the clan as they appear during the opening scene) make the film easier to follow and establish the different characters.

“Sword of Desperation” was nominated for six Japanese Academy Prizes, including Best Actor (Toyokawa), Best Supporting Actor (Kikkawa Koji as Obiya), Best Editing, Best Sound, Best Lighting, and Best Cinematography. The lighting and cinematography are indeed outstanding, with crisp, bright colors and vistas that highlight the change of seasons that Japanese filmmakers are so fond of. The editing is also excellent, with a story that uses multiple levels of flashbacks communicating itself effortlessly and gracefully. It’s done largely by ‘fading in’ to flashback sequences in black and white with voice overs from the previous scene still being played out, the film changing back to color and then later switching to black and white again as the flashback wraps up (and voiceovers from the next scene being laid upon it). It sounds a bit confusing but works great.

The best actor nomination for star Toyokawa Etsushi seems to have been given largely due to his popularity and what is for him an unusual role. As Kanemi, he’s largely unemotional and detached, rarely speaking and usually seen in a glum state. This is in contrast to other roles he’s played (such as the title character in 2004’s “Tange Sazen”, or acting alongside mythological creatures in 2005’s “The Great Yokai War”). In one way, it is an excellent performance as he has nailed the essence of the character-but the character, while a model of Bushido, is rather uninteresting. While there is no question Kanemi is at heart a compassionate and thoughtful man, the character has little charisma. Thankfully the situation centering on him provides all the drama needed.

Animeigo again excels in providing a clear translation with easy to read subtitles. The transfer is colorful and well done. Extras include an extensive gallery of stills along with trailers for “Sword of Desperation”, ‘The Samurai I Loved’ (a film we enjoyed even more than “Sword”), and ‘Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai’ (our favorite Animeigo release). Since the film is not an historical epic, program notes are slim and largely give a general history of the Edo Period. There are also short biographies for star Toyokawa, director Hirayama, and source writer Fujisawa. Curiously, there’s no title given on the title screen-we don’t recall seeing this happen on too many DVD titles.

Sword of Desperation provides jidaigeki fans with the heart and humanity of Yamada Yoji’s “Samurai Trilogy” while also gifting chanbara hounds with an exciting climatic swordfight that echoes the Ichikawa Raizo films its title seems to be an homage to. It’s another chapter in the story of Unasaka Han-a record that continues to write itself in the blood splattered across the tatami mats in the halls of power. Watch it before the Shogun gets wind of things and confiscates the Han. You can order “Sword of Desperation” directly from Animeigo at a discount HERE or from Amazon.

All images copyright & courtesy of 2010 Sword Of Desperation Production Committee