This epic period drama hit Japanese cinemas in the winter of 2003 and quickly established itself as a modern classic by sweeping the boards at the Japanese Oscars. Matt Shingleton checks out Tartan’s R2 release, which should be in stores come Monday.
Loosely based on an epic dual-volume novel from highly popular Japanese author Jiro Asada, When the Last Sword is Drawn continues the great cinematic tradition of an infamous group of Samurai known as the Shinsengumi. Their grip on the Japanese subconscious has not wavered since their fall in 1868, when the Satsuma-Choshu army stormed through Toba-Fushimi with the Emperor’s Imperial Standard raised. Proving the grand old tradition that everybody loves an underdog, by stubbornly refusing to drop their arms and concede the defeat of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Shinsengumi became the national symbol of the Samurai Spirit – known as Bushido. Since then, numerous novels have been written about their exploits – to varying degrees of historical accuracy of course – and certain members of the troupe are as well known as any iconic samurai of old. Their cinematic legacy started way back in 1928 when Shochiku Productions green lit a silent half hour short about the group. Since then no fewer than fifty film and TV productions have been based around them, right up until 2003, when Shochiku unleashed this big-budget extravaganza on a Shinsengumi obsessed public.
One cold winter’s night in 1899 – Three decades after the fall of the last shogun regime to rule Japan – a frail old man brings his sick grandson to the local surgery for help with his fever. Although the surgery is officially closed down in preparation for relocation, Doctor Chiaki Ono and his paediatrician wife gladly open their doors for one last patient. As his wife treats the young boy in the back room, Chiaki sits down with the grandfather over a cup of sake but the old man seems pre-occupied by an old photo of a samurai that sits on the desk beside them. He acts strange, almost as if he recognizes the person in the frame and in response Chiaki informs him that the pictured samurai was a member of the Shinsengumi, back during the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. He asks the old man if he ever heard of them back in his youth and at first the man says no, but this is a lie because the old man is none other than Hajime Saito – captain of the Shinsengumi’s third squadron and comrade in arms with the man in the picture. This man is Kanichiro Yoshimura, a low ranked samurai from a country town who came to Kyoto during a time of great civil conflict with one goal in mind – to make as much money as possible. This attitude disgusted the young Saito and the two men soon became deadly rivals, but as the Tokugawa regime crumbled and the Shinsengumi slowly became outlaws, so too did these two men gradually become friends.
Yojiro Takita’s ‘When the Last Sword is Drawn’ holds up to the Shinsengumi’s grand cultural tradition very well indeed. It may not provide a particularly deep account of the fall of the group, but there’s enough action spectacle and emotion to stir you towards the plight of these tragic icons, and even if you don’t know much about Japanese history the film remains extremely approachable because at its core is a very simple drama about the nature of the human spirit. Bringing Jiro’s epic novel to the big screen must have been a pretty daunting task, not only had it been read by millions of people across the land but it was also adapted into a moderately successful eight-hour mini-series within a year of the novel’s release. Given the sheer length of the book, much of the story had to be dropped or completely re-imagined in adapting to a feature length film, but Yojiro and scriptwriter Takehiro Nakajima have done a fine job in transforming Jiro’s writing from page to screen. The first clever trick they employ is to base the narrative around a serendipitous meeting between a Shinsengumi captain and a student of Yoshimura’s. This then enables them to repeatedly cut between two distinct flashback arcs – one that examines Yoshimura the samurai, the other which examines Yoshimura the family man.
The difference between these two facets of Kanichiro Yoshimura is quite startling. Saito’s flashback reveals a man who is clearly of low heritage, arriving in the Shinsengumi camp in dirty threadbare clothing and so humble in nature that the gruff Captain Saito is immediately sickened by him. Saito is a paradigm of cynicism, holding very little value in his own life and even less in the lives of others, but severely loyal to the ethics of the Shinsengumi and what he perceives to be his own samurai code. When this backwater samurai joins this group and starts bragging to Saito about his family and hometown – two things that a true samurai should hold secondary to the serving of his master or an honourable cause – he decides there and then to kill him. There’s just one small problem, this dirt poor man from Morioka has already proven himself to be an expert swordsman, and sure enough in the rain-soaked night he manages to fend Saito off. It is at this point that the two men express their contrasting philosophies, Saito believes he is only alive because no one has been able to kill him yet, whereas Yoshimura will kill to stay alive – the last thing he wants to do right now is die. So why join a gang of Shogunate loyalists who are at the forefront of the civil conflict? Well, as Saito finds out soon enough, it would seem Yoshimura’s only in this organization for the wage.
As harsh as Saito’s actions may be, it’s hard not to agree with his questioning of Yoshimura’s samurai ethics, a true samurai would never rally to a cause purely for personal gain, but then the first of Chiaki Ono’s flashbacks kick in and these paint a very different picture indeed. In his hometown Yoshimura was a teacher of considerable learning and swordsmanship who taught his students the virtues of life in Morioka, northern Japan despite the bleak cold climate of the region. Also being of low samurai rank; his family live in abject poverty, which in a region where the lower classes are stuck in a perpetual famine, is a very dangerous situation to be in. Yoshimura is faced with two unfortunate choices: Either watch his wife and children slowly starve to death or desert his clan and try and find a higher source of income in the wealthier mid-regions of Japan. Tough decision for any samurai to make, particularly one as proud as Yoshimura, but he is a man who values family above all else and inevitably chooses the former. Luckily for him, the leader of his clan happens to be his best friend since childhood: Jiroemon Ono – father of Chiaki. So instead of being ordered to commit Seppuku (ritual suicide – usually a punishment for shamed samurai), he allows Yoshimura to leave with only public denouncement as a traitor.
With me so far? These flashbacks immediately set up the major themes and characters of When the Last Sword is Drawn, but they also remind us of a more famous period drama that hit Japanese theatres just a few months prior: Yoji Yamada’s Twilight Samurai. Both films feature extremely honourable, highly skilled swordsmen facing harsh adversity on the crummy end of the samurai class system and this is certainly no coincidence. In a time where Japan is becoming more and more americanised, these films have been made to stir the spirit of the working classes and provide a rallying call to the traditional values of old. Yoshimura’s struggle represents the plight of common Japanese males, who have to work exhausting hours away from wife and children. Lofty ambitions indeed, and for the most part When the Last Sword is Drawn succeeds in rallying you to Yoshimura’s cause, but along the way you have to sit through some astonishingly overblown melodramatics – for instance there’s one flashback scene near the half-way point where Yoshimura’s distraught wife attempts to drown herself so the family has one less mouth to feed. Not only is this gesture ridiculously overbearing, but the first half of the film already perfectly established how terrible the famine in Morioka was. Unfortunately too many scenes in Yoshimura’s hometown story arc tend to follow this trend.
Thank god for the Kyoto story arc with the Shinsengumi then, because Yojiro Takita juggles this storyline with the plight of Yoshimura’s family brilliantly – with relatively little screentime to truly flesh out the political nuances of situation to boot! One very neat trick he employs is to start each of Saito’s flashbacks with an action scene, immediately snapping us out of the lethargy that only a film running over two hours in length can induce. These action sequences run the gamut from one-on-one duals to stirring Shinsengumi raids to the inevitable wartime battle scenes that pitch swords against guns – and Takita handles each one brilliantly. For the duals he adopts the traditional approach of wide, distant shots combined with a gentle pacing that not only lends a visual grace to the standoffs but a healthy natural tension as well. For the raids and battle scenes he gets slightly more creative, adopting faster, tighter shots and pans to give proceedings a bit of muscle, not to mention the blood! Ask any good Shinsengumi fan what a Gumi film needs and they’ll tell you – buckets of the red stuff. Takita duly obliges and paints the city of Kyoto literally red. All this coming from a guy who up until this point in his career was best known for directing comedies!
As mentioned earlier, even though the film runs for a healthy 137minutes, this just wasn’t enough time to provide a thorough examination of the Shinsengumi and the civil war that led to the removal of the Shogunate system. However, what is included panders quite nicely to dedicated fans of these icons. I’m pretty sure even the ardent fanatics aren’t that familiar with the samurai Kanichiro Yoshimura, but novelist Jiro Asada is adamant the man was a real life member of the faction. Apparently he discovered Yoshimura in a trilogy of books about the Shinsengumi by legendary author Kan Shimozawa, who is best known for being the man who created Zatoichi. Anyway, Jiro was attracted to Kan’s description of Yoshimura as a money grabbing samurai and used this basic premise to flesh out the character in his story – this meant he could take some huge artistic liberties. The first of which occur early on in the film when we see Yoshimura take on the Shinsengumi captain Nagakura Shinpachi to prove his worthiness to join the group. This is comic book sensationalism at its best here, as Nagakura was famous for being one of the top fighters among the organization, so by having Yoshimura fight him to a tie it swiftly establishes him among the best of the best.
Most Shinsengumi stories focus on the more glamourous members, like leader Isami Kondo, his second in command Toshizo Hijikata; and the youthful captain Soji Okita, who was supposedly a true Kendo prodigy and best swordsman in the group. Saito Hajime has only really become more prominent in newer stories, perhaps because so little is known about the real man. What we do know is that he was quite young, around the age of thirty when the group fell – in fact all the figureheads of the Shinsengumi were around the ages of 30-35, so a lot younger than they are portrayed in this film. Saito was said to have been very quiet and an excellent undercover agent/assassin, so many stories portray him as a cynical man with a harsh temperament. Despite this reputation the real man was a great survivor who eventually passed away in 1915 at the age of 71, and in When the Last Sword is Drawn it feels like his relationship with Yoshimura was used to suggest a possible reason for Saito’s survival during the harsh times after the civil war, when the Shinsengumi were labeled as rebels – as if his interaction with this noble, conscientious samurai inspired him to value life more highly. There are other controversial re-imaginings of historic conventions in Yojiro Takita’s film of course, and to go into any more than these early ones would be venturing too much into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say there are some great eyebrow-raising moments for history buffs to scoff or drool over.
Bringing these characters brilliantly to life are excellent central performances from leading men Koichi Sato and Kiichi Nakai. Koichi has built a career out of playing uptight cynical men, so he’s really reveling in his element here, cranking the grumpiness up to eleven. Kiichi perhaps has the harder role, in that Yoshimura is so sickeningly humble he’s hard to relate to at first, but beneath this back-country simplicity he imbues an engaging air of nobility and steely resolve into the character – not to mention his desperation to provide for his family, no matter the cost to his own honour. He does a startling job conveying all these emotions, sometimes all at once in one single scene. As for the supporting cast they all perform to a very high standard and each has a stand out moment within the film.
Final mention must go to Joe Hisaishi’s score. If you’re familiar with the cinema of Hayao Miyazaki or Takeshi Kitano then this man needs no introduction – he’s simply one of the finest composers working in cinema today. This was the first time he’d ever worked on a period drama, but you’d never have guessed from listening to his work here. For the most part his arrangements maintain a rather low-key presence, but when the moment calls they spring beautifully into life and suck out a lot more emotion from the story than was originally there. Whether he’s delivering booming drum beats during the action sequences or harmonious sting melodies during Kanichiro’s heart-bleeding flashbacks, he hits the right notes every time.
Okay I’ve waffled on far too long about this film, so I’ll just end by saying that I feel there’s a hell of a lot more to When the Last Sword is Drawn than merely some overly melodramatic weepy. As a piece of action cinema and sensationalist biopic it’s first rate, and while Yojiro Takita’s epic may not live quite up to the best Samurai chambara pictures of the 60’s and 70’s, it does hold up well as an example of Japanese period-popcorn cinema at its best.
Before talking about the contents of TartanUK’s DVD release of When the Last Sword Is Drawn I’d like to first mention a possible quirk in the packaging of the final release. The promo DVD sleeve Tartan sent DVDtimes features the usual film synopsis on the back, along with the DVD features. However some of the details in the synopsis do not match the story of Yojiro Takita’s film, in fact they are much closer to the story of the novel so it seems Tartan were given liner notes for that instead.
Presented at 1.63:1, the anamorphic transfer for the most part looks quite nice, the print is pretty much spotless bar the odd random nick, and compression is solid with only minor instances of digital noise. Takita made sure to capture the changing of the seasons throughout the story and the colour scheme often changes to express this. The DVD copes well here, the film doesn’t have a particularly vivid palette, so instead colours appear nice and gentle, with no bleed or chroma noise. Contrast and brightness levels are rather good and provide solid shadow detail during the darker action scenes. The screengrabs provided in this review may look quite low contrast, with little in the way of “true” blacks, but this looks like a stylistic choice on the part of the director and DP – certainly his later films like Onmyoji 1&2 have the same appearance. If you skim through the film and pay close attention to the black levels, you should find that certain scenes have darker blacks than others.
Unfortunately I’ve ran out of compliments for the transfer, what’s left is for me to harp on about the two big problems with this release. The first is a common one for recent TartanUK releases: NTSC>PAL conversion, meaning interlacing rears its ugly head. The other problem is in my opinion the worst offender: The transfer appears overly filtered, resulting in a big drop in detail. Here’s a comparison with the R3 Korean DVD release, which supposedly is a direct port of the Japanese DVD. For the most part it looks almost identical to the R2 UK release, but there’s one big difference. Click the thumbnails to view full size versions with Tartan R2uk grabs above, R3kr below:
These grabs highlight the softness issues plaguing the Tartan release quite well, both transfers suffer from shimmer in areas of fine detail, but in the Tartan it is much more pronounced. There is one advantage from all that softness though, the severe Edge Enhancements of the Korean release have been heavily reduced on the Tartan print, however if you look closely enough you can just make out the exact same halos that are present on the Korean disc:
This seems to suggest that Tartan have ported either the Korean or more likely the Japanese DVD transfer.
Three Japanese audio tracks are provided in DTS5.1, DD5.1 & DD2.0. For purpose of this review I primarily listened to the DTS track and I have to say it’s pretty excellent. The audio is aggressively loud and not only is dialogue crystal clear but the deep Japanese voices sound rich and full, particularly during the narrative voice-overs. Also we have excellent sound displacement throughout; if someone speaks off camera then you will always hear them from the proper corresponding direction and distance. Joe Hisaishi’s score is beautifully rendered, from the rumbling kettle drums and low wind instruments to the soothing string accompaniments; the music is expressed with excellent dynamics and tempo. When the action sequences eventually kick in, all the speakers in your system will be given a thorough workout, with aggressive delivery of the dialogue and score plus some floor shaking bass, which sounds deep and very tight. In comparison the DD5.1 track isn’t nearly as loud or aggressive, but crank the volume up and it runs the DTS track fairly close, the biggest difference I found was that the bass isn’t quite as tight on the DD5.1 track, with a much warmer, looser sound. If you don’t have the benefits of a home cinema set up, the DD2.0 Stereo track should serve you well. It isn’t even remotely as expansive or punchy as the 5.1 tracks, but the dialogue sounds pretty rich and smooth and the bass generally warm and approachable throughout.
It might be worth noting that I had a hard time activating the DTS track from the Menus on the review disc Tartan sent DVDTimes. Each time I selected it the film played in DD5.1, but switching to DTS on the fly was no problem at all. Maybe it was a quirk of the review disc, or my DVD player or both.
Optional English subtitles are included, with no spelling or grammatical errors and the same translation that was used on the Korean and Japanese releases.
Before discussing the extra features Tartan have included in this release, I just want to mention what they’ve omitted – namely the deleted scenes found on the Japanese and Korean releases, that would have been a nice addition to this set but alas it wasn’t to be. Right that’s my little geek rant over because there’s a wealth of extra features on the second disc, and let’s not forget they’ve included more interview footage here than on the Korean release.
The sole extra on disc one is the Original Theatrical Trailer, which is pretty self explanatory. Moving onto disc two we have a lengthy Behind the Scenes Featurette which features candid footage on the set during the shooting of many scenes in the film. They demonstrate that the cast were good natured and the director very hands on in his approach. There’s a distinct focus on the action sequences here as well, with plenty of footage of the opening dual between Yoshimura and Nakamura and the big battle scene at Toba-Fushimi near the end.
Moving on we hit the main bulk of the extra material: Interviews with the cast and crew, most of which are conducted on set during the production. First up is director Yojiro Takita, who talks about how he became involved with the project, his feelings on the original novel and the major themes of the piece and what he hoped to achieve when shooting the film. His manner is very laid back throughout and the interview plays out almost like an informal chat. Next in line is award winning Japanese novelist: Jiro Asada. He gets the longest interview on the disc, which is no bad thing because Jiro knows the history of the story best and provides some good information on the real Shinsengumi, what he hoped to achieve when fictionalizing their lives in his novel and also his feelings on Yojiro’s cinematic adaptation. The rest of the interviews are with the main stars of the film, but there’s no point going through and summarising each individually because they’ve all been asked almost the exact same questions, namely whether they’ve read the original novel and if so what did they think of it, what was it like shooting in Kyoto, and the usual questions about working with their co-stars and director. Each star interviewed is open and eager to talk at lengths about their work on this project and everyone seems unsurprisingly pleased to have worked with each other and the director. Concluding the actors interview is one final interview with both Kiichi Nakai and Koichi Sato, taken during the film’s premiere at the Tokyo Film festival in late 2002. Both actors are very articulate and extremely comfortable in each others company as they politely express their take on the main messages of the film and what it was like to work together for the first time.
Finishing off the extra features we have two mid-length featurettes: Premiere Footage and Press Conference the latter being another on-set question and answers session with the director and main stars during the shooting of the film. Most of the answers are regurgitated from the individual interviews earlier, but there is one very funny moment when Koichi Saito jokingly expresses that from now on he and Kiichi Nakai shall be known as the “Golden Couple of film”. The premiere footage is all taken from the Tokyo film festival where When the Last Sword is Drawn was chosen to close the event. After a couple of minutes of cast and crew arriving they take to the stage for a brief question and answers session that’s conducted with an English translator reiterating for foreign audience members. Again it’s the director, author and main stars expressing the same opinions as in the earlier features, but this time there’s one addition: Joe Hisaishi. It’s good to hear him talk about the project but his segment is all too brief.
All the extra features on disc two are presented in 4:3 with removeable English subtitles. For the footage at the Tokyo Film Festival, where an English translator was on hand, the subtitles only appear intermittently when needed.
Although When the Last Sword is Drawn is bogged down slightly by some overblown dramatics, the civil war setting helps hold the story together to deliver a rousing action drama and touching tale of one man’s struggle to maintain the well-being of his family and his samurai honour. Some excellent action set-pieces also make the 137min runtime tick by quite smoothly. For the R2uk release TartanUK have pulled out an impressive selection of extra features and a thumping DTS soundtrack. The transfer they have provided is of high enough standard to please most casual buyers I’d imagine, but the videophile in me can’t help but feel they’ve slightly botched it somehow.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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