The Last Samurai (Neptune Media, NR)

lastsam sqWhen it comes to staging nifty swordfights, Misumi is the king.

 

lastsam 1974

Forget about that silly 2003 movie starring Tom Cruise; the real The Last Samurai is Kenji Misumi’s 1974 film, now available on DVD from Neptune Media. The two films share a general location and time period, but otherwise, they couldn’t be more different. Although Misumi was working with much more limited technical means than Ed Zwick, his film comes out on top in all the categories that really matter (in my book, anyway): intellectual complexity, absorbing characters, depth of feeling, and an authentic sense of the period and culture involved. Even more important, when it comes to staging nifty swordfights, Misumi is the king.

About that intellectual complexity… There are a lot of characters in this film, and they can come and go rather abruptly, so you might want to read the background notes (on the disc and in the DVD case) before watching the film, to increase the probability that you’ll have a clue who’s who and what’s what. But it can also be enjoyable to just let the experience of the film wash over you, and that’s how I watched it the first time. It’s epic in its epic-ness, as they say (almost 2:40 in length, with lots of action, many locations, and a big historical story), so don’t feel too bad if you don’t catch it all the first time through.

The story takes place in mid-19th century Japan, at a time when samurai culture was on the way out and modernism on the way in. The central character, Toranosuke (Hideki Takahashi), is a disinherited son who tried to drown himself, only to be rescued by Ikemoto (Takahiro Tamura), who trains him to be a master swordsman. Then, when Toranosuke is grown and ready to test his skills in the real world, his mentor advises him to stay out of the clan warfare engulfing Japan, because the way of the sword is over. Of course, there’s still plenty of action (not everyone has the same good sense of Ikemoto and Toranosuke), but not much glorification of the warrior culture.

Misumi was a master of the chanbara (“sword fighting”) film, and this was not only his last film, but also one of the last gasps of the genre. His lengthy resume as a director includes the first film in the Zatoichi series and several Lone Wolf and Cub episodes. Given his background in the genre, it’s all the more remarkable that this film does not glorify the samurai, and does take time to portray the human cost of the clan wars for ordinary Japanese. Even the palette is darker and more subdued than in some of his earlier films, and there’s a feeling of sadness enveloping The Last Samurai, which is appropriate since it’s about the end of an era.

Neptune’s DVD release of The Last Samurai looks and sounds great (the score is by Akira Ifukube), particularly given the period of the film. Extras on the disc include text bios of the principals involved in the film, a film to novel comparison, a stills gallery, a gallery of historical photos, and a timeline of the Shogunate; there are also informative program notes included in the DVD case. | Sarah Boslaugh

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