Japan is under oppression. For the sake of the nation, Sanzaemon murders Lady Renko to end her evil reign. But the consequences are oddly lenient; he has been given a second chance to serve under Ukyo Dayuu whose life is threatened by a rival clan. The day of the anticipated showdown is here.
From the very first frames of Hideyuki Hirayama’s exquisite, resonant drama Sword of Desperation, the themes of honour, wisdom, love and loyalty are presented with grace, elegance and profound, understated emotion. Alternating between an insular enclave of cruel officialdom and vistas of the majestic land and its people, Hirayama has crafted a film that explores the very modern intricacies of political immorality while richly exuding the artistry of the 9th century Yamato-e painting style.
The main players in this intricate drama are introduced by subtitles as a traditional Noh dance recital unfolds. In the court of the easily-corrupted Lord Tabu Ukyou (Jun Murakami), the most-respected position of Captain of the Guards is held by Samurai swordsman Kanemi Sanzaemon (Etsushi Toyokawa). In what seems to be an act of cold-blooded, irrational murder, Sanzaemon strikes down the Lord’s 1st Concubine, Renko (Megumi Seki), with a single plunge of his weapon into her heart.
Though guilty of a crime punishable by beheading, Sanzaemon’s life is spared; he is imprisoned in solitary confinement for 12 months, only tended to by Rio (Chizuru Ikewaki), his unfailingly devoted niece. In flashback sequences that require the utmost attention from the viewer, we learn that Sanzaemon committed the most dishonourable of acts in the name of his Samurai code to protect the greater population – Renko was a greedy, manipulative villainess whose demands and strong will were influencing Lord Ukyou’s governance over the peasant villagers.
Upon his release, Sanzaemon is welcomed back into the court of Lord Ukyou, securing a senior position as the Lord’s personal bodyguard. The regional council, lead by the devious Retainer of the Second Rank, Tsuda (Ittoku Kishibe), understands that Sanzaemon’s skill with a blade may come in useful in the Lord’s ongoing feud with his cousin, Lord Hayatonosho Obiya (Koji Kikkawa).
Long periods of silent solemnity, the detailed portrayal of the cultural idiosyncrasies of the Lord’s residence (many actors cast as servants spend the entire film shuffling about on their knees, heads bowed) and a lead performance by Toyokawa that utilises intense stillness to convey every character nuance may keep some viewers at an arm’s length. If one does not connect with the emotional heartbeats of the story – Sanzaemon’s unusual romance with Rio; his tortured sense of honour as both a Samurai and assassin – or feel compelled by the twisting intricacies of the political manipulations at work on Sanzaemon’s destiny, Sword of Desperation will amount to little more than Kôichi Ishii’s stunning photography.
But, like its protagonist’s adherence to the virtues of the past, Sword of Desperation finds its primary influence in the gentle dramas of Japanese filmmaking legend Yasujirô Ozu. Determinedly shunning the overwhelming influence of Samurai clichés on Japanese cinema of the day with films such as Tokyo Story (1953), Ozu found beauty and truth in the most minimal of exchanges. Though Hideyuki Hirayama indulges in a wildly cinematic display of the Samurai warrior’s fighting skill to close his film, it is Ozu’s gentle influence on the fate of Hirayama’s characters that encapsulates the finest elements of his stunning work.