A film doesn’t need to be innovative to be good. Sometimes it is enough to do a straight take on a classic genre, to hit all the beats in perfect rhythm and fluently play a familiar tune. Sword of Desperation does just that. In the opening scene when loyal samurai retainer Kanemi Sanzaemon walks up to Lady Renko, the favored concubine of Kanemi’s lord Ukyo Tabu, and stabs her in the heart, you know just what you are going get. And that it will be good.
The genre here is author Fujisawa Shuhei, whose work has come to define modern Japanese samurai fiction. Far from any kind of Kill Bill action, Fujiwara wrote introspective, melancholy tales that dove deep into the psychology of the rank-and-file soldiers or Edo period Japan. Fujisawa’s heroes are not the leaders and great lords of the castle, but stolid, loyal retainers who must fight constant inner battles between personal feelings and duties to lords who often don’t deserve loyalty.
Ever since director Yamada Yoji re-introduced the world to Fujisawa with his samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor) —arguably the finest samurai films since Kurosawa stepped behind the camera—Fujisawa has become the Zane Grey of Japanese samurai fiction. Kurotsuchi Mitsuo directed The Samurai I Loved based on a Fujisawa tale. And now director Hirayama Hideyuki gives us another.
Sword of Desperation (Japanese title: Hisshiken Torisashi or The Bird-Catching Desperate Sword) is a by-the-numbers Fujisawa story (It even takes place in Unasaka-han, the fictional province that serves as the background for most of his samurai yarns). All of the familiar tropes are present; two righteous men being slowly moved into a confrontation that neither of them desires. A gloomy man living his life under a death sentence who suddenly finds a reason to live in an unlikely love affair, but whose sense of duty is stronger than his passion. Political corruption at high levels, and lords who use their retainers' high ideals against them, manipulating them like pieces on a chessboard into battles without honor.
And then of course, there is the “Sword of Desperation” itself. Like Fujisawa’s The Hidden Blade, the title refers to a secret sword technique known by only one man, an indefensible strike that can only be used at the moment of greatest desperation—the moment of explosive death that we spend the entire film waiting for.
Director Hirayama doesn’t play around too much with Sword of Desperation. Fujisawa’s tales are, by their nature, intimate affairs, and Hirayama tries to capture that. He adds a few touches of cinematic flair. The mirroring of the opening Noh performance with the final scene worked very well. His use of the flashback device that fades to black-and-white is effective, but not consistent, leading to some confusion about when you are in a flashback.
A strong cast is necessary for this type of film, and fronting Sword of Desperation is veteran actor Toyokawa Etsushi (20th Century Boys) as Kanemi Sanzaemon. Kanemi is a tormented man, whose wife’s death left him depressed and suicidal, until he saw an honorable out for himself by assassinating the favored yet controlling concubine of his lord, the spoiled, weak-willed Ukyo Tabu. Toyokawa gives Kanemi the gravity and presence necessary for the role, and plays all of the faces of Kanemi from groomed court samurai, to scruffy prisoner and wander, to the demon he eventually becomes. Toyokawa is playing somewhat against type in this film, which is probably helped him win the 2011 Japan Academy Award for this role.
Equally strong is Ikewaki Chizuru as Rio, the niece of Kanemi whose love for her uncle is more than familiar. Kikkawa Koji plays a good opposite as Lord Obiya, the righteous noble whose path sets him directly against Kanemi, even though they should be standing together.
If there is any real weakness to Sword of Desperation, it is that the film is too by-the-numbers. A straight take on a classic genre can give you a very good film, but not a great one. With his samurai trilogy Yamada Yoji combined Fujisawa’s source material with potent and powerful acting and directing, and set the standard for all others to follow. Hirayama just isn’t the genius that Yamada was. But it seems strange to fault someone for not being a genius. Being very good is good enough.
A few notes on the DVD: Animeigo still does the best subtitles in the business. I know there will never be issues there. The DVD for Sword of Desperation is bare bones, with only a few trailers and some production notes. But still, a nice release.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.