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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Last Samurai (1974) review


Takahashi Hideki (Sugi Toranosuke), Ogata Ken (Nakamura Hanjiro/Kirino Toshiaki), Taichi Kiwako (Ohide/Hoshuni), Matsuzaka Keiko (Reiko), Kando Masaomi (Iba Hachiro), Saiko Teruhiko (Okita Soji), Tamura Takahiro (Ikemoto Mohei), Tatsumi Ryutaro (Saigo Takamuri), Honami Chikako (Tsuya), Ryunosuke Minegishi (Aizawa Denshichiro)

Directed by: Misumi Kenji

The Short Version: The last production helmed by Kenji SHOGUN ASSASSIN Misumi is quite possibly the man's best work. It's easily the best film of his now legitimately available body of work on North American shores. This exemplary historical account is a sweeping, if somber depiction of the samurai warriors last days before Japan became more westernized upon entering the modern age. Highly dramatic, it contains a generous amount of action scenes that are made all the more exciting from the engaging performances and the melancholic romanticism of Akira Ifukube's brilliant score. Long dormant as an obscure footnote in Jidaigeki cinema, this licensed DVD will hopefully open up a new audience to those who only know the man by his work as the director of the LONE WOLF & CUB series.

Returning home after an eight year absence, Sugi Toranosuke discovers his father has passed away. A sickly boy growing up, Sugi had attempted suicide upon overhearing he was not likely to live past 20; and, because of his sickness, was to be disinherited from the family estate. Rescued from drowning and raised by Ikemoto Mohei, a Shogunate spy, Sugi is taught the ways of the Samurai; later becoming a skilled ronin.

Anxious to put his years of sword training to good use, Sugi is eventually tasked with escorting a Shogunate agent named Reiko to Kyoto. After an attack on the road, they're separated. While searching for her, Sugi meets with his master Ikemoto again. His teacher orders him to return to Edo and start a new life in order to avoid the impending violence of the Satsuma and Choshu rebellions that threaten to topple the declining Tokugawa Shogunate.

While pondering his decision, Sugi meets up with three swordsmen of different schools and backgrounds. One of the men, Iba Hachiro, is Sugi's good friend from Edo. Ignoring Ikemoto's request, Sugi decides to stay in Kyoto and instead of joining his friends in battle, Sugi marries Reiko, but the rampant violence won't allow them peace for long.

Through all the political turmoil, Sugi's friends end up in rival clans and ultimately fight against each other. After years of struggle and senseless loss of life, the Shogunate is no more. The Meiji Period takes hold leading to industrialization and westernized advances that signal the end for the Age of the Samurai. Sugi must now contemplate putting away his sword for good and embracing the impending modernity taking hold in Japan.

Having been the guiding force behind many of the best, and best remembered examples of Chambara cinema, it's naturally fitting that master filmmaker Kenji Misumi would close his directorial career on a film entitled THE LAST SAMURAI (not to be confused with either the 1990 or 2003 films of the same name); especially one as sprawling as this one. Misumi's dramatically gloomy style is clearly in evidence here, aided and abetted by the majestically melancholic cues of Akira Ifukube. The John Williams of Japan, Ifukube's oppressively bleak chords have worked magic for many entries in the immensely popular GODZILLA series, the Kaiju-Chambara crossover series of DAIMAJIN and numerous samurai sagas including a number of the ZATOICHI movies.

A monumentally epic production in every sense of the word, the 'GONE WITH THE WIND' of Jidaigeki (based upon a serialized novel entitled 'That Man' by Ikenami Shotaro) covers so much ground and explores a wealth of diverse characters, the near 3 hour running time is just barely able to contain it all. Broken up into two chapters--"The Passionate Storm" and "The Surging Waves", the proceedings unravel much like a gritty mini-series.

With so much drama involved, a movie entitled THE LAST SAMURAI wouldn't be complete without sword duels. Misumi's movie has an abundance of them (choreographed by Adachi Reichiro) throughout in addition to several large scale battle sequences which shows Japan engaging in increasingly Anglo enhanced styles of warfare.

With Misumi's name attached, some might go into this one expecting violence on the level of the LONE WOLF & CUB series. While there is definitely a lot of violence here, outside of one sequence towards the end (that features an incredible instance of brutality that recalls the end of every episode of VOLTRON), the savagery is never of the comic level of blood-spraying from that iconic samurai series.

Misumi has worked with a great many titans of the genre including such luminaries as Tomisaburo Wakayama (the LONE WOLF series), his brother Shintaro Katsu (the wildly popular ZATOICHI series) and Raizo Ichikawa (the SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH series) among others.

For this film, it's Hideki Takahashi and Ken Ogata. Both men deliver exemplary performances especially the former. His character of Sugi stubbornly follows his sword master much like a doting child would loyally tag alongside their father. Sugi looks to Ikemoto as his father, and much more in fact. Just as he refuses to abandon his master, he likewise refuses to obey him in his wish that Sugi return home and settle down; as opposed to becoming embroiled in samurai bloodshed during Japan's political and societal transition.

Sugi manages to avoid the battlefield, but does draw his sword occasionally. The difference is that it's of a personal level, not one of pride or country. During the finale, Sugi explains this to his longtime friend, Hanjiro when destiny ironically brings them together one last time.

Those mostly familiar with the directors ZATOICHI entries, his LONE WOLF & CUB films, or the abridged, 'Greatest Gore Hits' of SHOGUN ASSASSIN for that matter, will be in for a surprise here. It's as if Misumi knew his time was coming (the man died in September of 1975) and concentrated all his passions and effort into one last production.

Granted, this isn't a film for the rabid kung fu crowd, or for those seeking spurting blood and anti-heroic swordsmen. This is a serious historical account of one of Japan's most oft filmed time periods encapsulated within a near three hour time frame. At least know going in that this is one of those movies where you are going to absorb a lot of information and things you will miss, you will pick up in a second or third viewing.

The DVD supplements go a long way in putting the era and the time period the film is set in into perspective. The notes are simplified and to the point, and not confusing at all. They're really quite helpful in enhancing the experience of watching an epic unfold before your eyes.

A rare and obscure picture known mostly through devoted fan circles, Misumi's THE LAST SAMURAI was an ending in a few ways. It was his last movie and heralded the finality of the jidaigeki as fewer and fewer of them were coming out and even less possessed the magic of those of the earlier decades. Impeccably directed and acted, Misumi's last may quite possibly be his best.

You can purchase this DVD at amazon HERE and at Far East Flix HERE.

This review is representative of the Neptune Media DVD.


Samuel Wilson said...

It's a fascinating period in Japanese history and I keep discovering more films set in that time. In the past year I've seen two Shinsegumi movies and one about the Tengu-to, to name some of the factions vying for influence and power in those days. They all have their virtues, but you really whet my appetite for the Misumi film. Will have to check it out soon.

venoms5 said...

It's definitely a strong, classy samurai film, Sam. Outside of one particularly gory sequence, it's the polar opposite of Misumi's more well known Baby Cart movies.

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