Despite having a rich and varied filmography, director Masato Harada is still best known internationally for playing the villainous industrialist Omura in “The Last Samurai.” Edward Zwick’s 2003 movie took one of the messiest periods in Japan’s past and transformed it into a rousing, clear-cut tale of heroism starring Tom Cruise.

Now Harada has revisited the same era with “Baragaki: Unbroken Samurai,” a more sober-minded film, set in the turbulent years leading up to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which charts the rise and fall of the notorious Shinsengumi samurai corps.

Like his earlier historical epic “Sekigahara” (2017), this dense, breathless movie seems designed to edify more than entertain. But while the screenplay’s constant data dumps can get exhausting, there’s a real gusto to the filmmaking. “Baragaki: Unbroken Samurai” is as bracing as getting smacked in the face with a history book.

Baragaki: Unbroken Samurai (Moeyo Ken)
Run Time 148 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Oct. 15

Harada’s period dramas are like correctives to the pop-cultural record, and in this case he’s picked a tale that’s been rehashed numerous times, in everything from Nagisa Oshima’s “Taboo” (1999) to the “Rurouni Kenshin” series (2012-21).

The Shinsengumi was a special police force created in Kyoto to protect the ailing Tokugawa shogunate from radical imperial loyalists, and was notable for allowing people who weren’t from the samurai classes to join its ranks.

Those included the group’s eventual leader, Kondo Isami (Ryohei Suzuki), and his deputy, Hijikata Toshizo (Junichi Okada): farmers with thick accents and a brutally effective fighting style that saw them dubbed “baragaki,” from the Japanese for “thorn.” As Toshizo explains to a foreign interlocutor, “Touch me, and you’ll get hurt.”

In contrast to more romanticized depictions of the Shinsengumi, Harada emphasizes what a nasty business these samurai zealots were involved in. The film is as packed with assassinations and double-crosses as Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” yakuza series, and only marginally less nihilistic.

There are some visceral scenes of close-quarter combat, filmed up-close with wide-angle lenses and overhead shots. But a character’s recollection of visiting the aftermath of a fight, to find severed fingers strewn across the street, is no less vivid.

The film is based on Ryotaro Shiba’s 1964 novel “Moeyo Ken” (“Burn My Sword”), which places Toshizo at the center of the narrative. Suzuki’s Isami ends up looking like a spare part in most of his scenes, though the actor brings some welcome warmth to the proceedings.

Okada’s performance is all coiled energy, like a cobra waiting to strike. While he’s given some competition by a scenery-chomping Hideaki Ito as Serizawa Kamo, the film leaves little doubt about who the alpha male is. Ko Shibasaki holds her own as the only significant female character, a widow who captures Toshizo’s heart, thus confirming that he actually has one.

Despite clocking in at 148 minutes, the movie feels like it’s been condensed from a much longer cut, and ends as abruptly as it started. Yet the vigor of the delivery stops it from getting too stodgy.

Although the film doesn’t try to make any larger point, there’s a cautionary message here. After all the talk of tradition and principles, Toshizo ends up with nothing to fight for but fighting itself. “Baragaki: Unbroken Samurai” isn’t as much fun as a Tom Cruise flick, but it’s a lot more enlightening.

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