#527: When the Last Sword is Drawn
Initial release: November 4, 2002
Director: Yōjirō Takita
What is honor? What does it mean, to be honorable? Is it loyalty? Loyalty to whom? Is it sticking to your principles, even in the face of certain death?
Japan, the late 1860s. The Tokugawa shogunate is on its last legs, and it knows it. The Shinsengumi, nominally a state-sanctioned police force, but in actuality a paramilitary gang of ronin, are the dominant force in the streets of Kyo. And in the ranks of the Shinsengumi is Kanichiro Yoshimura, a simple swordsman who would change the lives of two people.
The film opens in late 1899, more than thirty years after the fall of the shogunate. An elderly man, revealed to be the historical figure Hajime Saito, takes his grandson to the doctor’s one snowy night. As the doctor’s wife — herself a medical professional — sees to the child, Saito happens upon an old photo of a man in traditional samurai garb, and recognizes the figure immediately as Yoshimura, a man he once hated, but came to admire. As he and the doctor, Chiaki, share a drink, they reminisce about the last days of the Edo period, and the man they had in common.
Yoshimura isn’t like your average swordsman; he’s certainly unlike most in the Shinsengumi, including Saito. Behind a goofy, earnest, easily-pleased man, whose animating goal seems to be to earn as much money as he can, is a master swordsman, outperforming even Saito himself. As the story slowly unravels, it becomes clear that the man who Saito originally thought to be a bumbling money-grubber is actually a man of deep conviction; though a respected teacher who instructed a young Chiaki, he struggled to support his family through a series of famines, and ultimately leaves to join the Shinsengumi — even though it means being cast out of his clan — so that he can send money home. When the Shinsengumi begins to split along factional lines based on support for either the Emperor or the shogun, with the Emperor supporters eventually leaving, Yoshimura chooses to stay, not for any ideological reason, but because in his mind he’s already betrayed one clan, and he shan’t betray another.
This conviction, and the simple joy and gratitude he expresses when being paid, initially raises Saito’s suspicions; at one point, Saito and Yoshimura discuss the willingness to die. Saito, like many of his compatriots, believes a willingness to die is the samurai way; he says, in the tradition of the murderous hero of Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom, that he’s only alive because nobody else can kill him; but Yoshimura points out that nobody really wants to die, and he only kills to protect himself. Saito is skeptical, but in the end, even he is forced to admit that Yoshimura was the best of any of them, staging a last stand against Imperial forces during the battle of Toba-Fushimi. It wasn’t out of loyalty to the shogunate, or the Shinsengumi, or his clan, that he did any of these things, but for the sake of his family.
When the Last Sword is Drawn is an uneven film. Though the technical direction is superb, with clever use of color amidst a muted palette, much of the first half is disjointed, more a series of vignettes without a lot of connective tissue. It’s hard to tell what’s happening now and what’s a flashback. Often, the film without warning will jump back to 1899 for a reaction shot or two. I found myself struggling to follow the plot. But sometime around halfway through, the ship seems to right itself as we get glimpses into Yoshimura’s deeper motivations. The final, heartbreaking scenes as Yoshimura, battered and bloody, returns to his clan, but must sacrifice himself to protect them from Imperial forces, left me feeling all sorts of things that I wasn’t expecting to feel.
It’s not your typical samurai film. It doesn’t have the heroics of the 1950s, or the cynicism of the 1960s. It’s a tale about the end of an era, when the violent world of samurai was being left behind, and a man who stood out among the bloodshed, who sought to do the right thing even as the world fell apart around him.
Perhaps that’s the most honorable thing anyone could do.