Film / Reviews

Death-row samurai spills ink, not blood

by Mark Schilling

Why have samurai movies become so middle-aged and sedate? Starting in the silent days and continuing through their 1950s peak, period films with top-knotted heroes typically featured a big one-against-many finale with flashing swords and the occasional firearm. Especially in the early days, both actors and audiences were skewed young.

In recent years, however, the genre has taken a more settled, nonviolent turn. Instead of a swordsman slicing opponents by the dozens, the hero is a bookkeeper, as in “Bushi no Kakeibo (Abacus and Sword);” an astronomer, as in “Tenchi Meisatsu (Tenchi: The Samurai Astronomer);” or a cook, as in “Bushi no Kondate (A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story).”

One igniter of this trend was Yoji Yamada’s “Samurai Trilogy,” beginning with the 2002 film “Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai).” The title hero (Hiroyuki Sanada) was a clan clerk — a samuri salaryman — who hurried home every evening to his young daughters and drew his sword with extreme reluctance.

Basically, all these films are shout-outs to the folks who have labored long and hard as cogs in Japan’s massive wheels of trade and industry, be it as a factory worker or an office drone. One sign (of many) that this audience is rapidly graying is Takashi Koizumi’s “Higurashi no Ki (A Samurai Chronicle),” which might be called an end-of-life samurai-salaryman movie.

Based on a Naoki Prize-winning novel by Rin Hamuro, the film focuses on a samurai, Shukoku Toda (Koji Yakusho), who is compiling a chronology of his clan while sentenced to seppuku (ritual suicide by sword), with a grace period of 10 years so he can complete his monumental task. (Seppuku was a considered a more honorable capital punishment for samurai than execution, which was reserved for commoners.)

Shukoku’s crime? Being discovered in compromising circumstances with a concubine (Shinobu Terajima) of the clan lord (Shiro Mifune). We soon learn the truth is quite different, though the real reason for Shukoku’s unjust sentence is not immediately explained.

The clan’s elderly chief retainer (Kazuyoshi Kushida) is worried that — with only three years until his scheduled self-execution — Shukoku might abscond, and orders a hot-headed young samurai, Shozaburo Danno (Junichi Okada), to stay with Shukoku and his family until the fatal day. In trouble himself for a violent quarrel with the chief retainer’s nephew (Munetaka Aoki), Shozaburo has no choice but serve as a live-in guard.

Shukoku calmly accepts his fate, even after Shozaburo becomes convinced that his host has been wronged and vows to save him, and even though he will be sorely missed by his stoutly loyal wife (Mieko Harada), dutiful grown daughter (Maki Horikita) and fiesty teenage son (Haruto Yoshida).

Shukoku has his reasons, which make perfect moral sense in his feudal world. In fact, he and those closest to him, including Shozaburo, are all such examplars of traditional samurai virtues that the film plays like morality tale. One of those virtues is absolute loyalty to the clan, to the sacrifice of your own life. Another is keeping a stiff upper lip when your husband, father or friend is about to go to his death, unfairly or not.

This is close enough to the historical fact, though not all samurai were as upstanding as Shukoku. Also, the film’s ideal of proper samurai (ergo, Japanese) conduct will surely strike chords with the local audience. Nonetheless, the unreconstructed outlander in me rebelled against Shukoku’s unflinching march to doom. When the clan screws you, screw the clan, I wanted to shout, but of course didn’t.

The critic in me also balked at the film’s ponderous pace, despite the occasional flashes of action, passion and humor. The latter films of Akira Kurosawa, including the ones Koizumi worked on as an assistant director, were also prone to this sort of stasis, with scenes that felt like “great moments in history” tableaux, but Kurosawa’s sense of visual beauty, both in motion and at rest, never completely deserted him. Though Koizumi and his veteran staff try to channel that sensibility, they are not Kurosawa, and though “A Samurai Chronicle” echoes the master’s work, it lacks his vivifying presence.

Would Toshiro Mifune, who played the glinty-eyed hero of so many Kurosawa epics, have labored for 10 years over the genealogy of a clan that had betrayed him, with an admirably adult restraint and sense of purpose? I imagine the books flying — and the sword coming out.


Fun fact: Takashi Koizumi’s first film as a director “Ame Agaru (After the Rain)” was based on a script by Akira Kurosawa, for whom Koizumi worked as an assistant director for 28 years.