Monday, January 26, 2009

Samurai Movies

The wife and I watched a couple of good Japanese Samurai films this weekend. Both featured "unconventional" samurai as their lead characters, both ran a little over two hours in length, and both were very good films, but otherwise they were both very different.

The first, and more unusual film, was Hana Yori mo Naho, or Hana: The Tale of a Reluctant Samurai. Set at the beginning of the Tokugawa era, the film follows a young samurai who has traveled to Edo at the instructions of both his clan and his dying father to seek vengeance upon the man who killed him. Short of funds and unable to locate his quarry, the young man has taken up residence in a row of houses occupied by peasants as well as a few other down on their luck samurai, including some of the famous "47 ronin" who are seeking their own vengeance.

The film follows the life of the main character as he comes to realize that the ideals of vengeance and 'death before dishonor' don't really hold much appeal to him. This leads to a very un-samurai like ending and provides an interesting commentary on traditional Japanese values.

The second film, Mibu Gishi Den, or When the Last Sword is Drawn, is set at the end of the Tokugawa era and features a samurai that has left his clan in order to earn enough money to feed his family, and as a result appears to have a very un-samurai like attitude towards the acquisition of wealth. Aside from this rather serious breach of duty and decorum, the lead character ends up upholding the honor and duties of a samurai even more diligently than his companions when things reach a crisis point, which leads to the kind of end typical of such tales.

While a very good film on its own, it was particularly interesting to compare and contrast it to the film Hana which we watched earlier. The protagonist of When the Last Sword is Drawn sees happiness and success when he puts duty to his family over duty to his clan and the samurai code, but sees only tragedy whenever he does as his society calls on him to do. I do not know if the intention of the film was to call into question these classical Japanese values, but when viewed in conjunction with Hana it certainly does so.

As films I have to rate When the Last Sword is Drawn as slightly better overall, mostly due to a rather long digression that focuses on a secondary character in the middle of Hana. I believe the director is trying to use the digression in an effort to show that the role of peasants in the era was not always as simple and lacking in tragedy as the rest of the film portrays, but it mainly serves to interrupt the main story and further slow the pacing.

Neither film is fast paced or "action packed" but there are a number of good fight scenes in When the Last Sword is Drawn. On the other hand, Hana has only two very short action sequences, neither one of which follows the classic samurai format. In just about all respects Hana is the anti-samurai film, while When the Last Sword is Drawn takes a much more traditional approach to the genre.

Both films are worth watching if you get the chance and have any interest in the genre. Hana is available with a dubbed soundtrack, but When the Last Sword is Drawn only comes with subtitles.

1 comment:

BlackDiamond said...

I really enjoyed "Love and Honor" recently, or Bushi no ichibun. The samurai main character has the equivalent of a cubicle job as one of the daimyo's food tasters. He dream of opening up his own dojo and teaching kids. When he goes blind from bad shellfish, his wife is forced into a compromising position, which leads him on a revenge fest.

It was well done and paced just about right.

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