When the Last Sword Is Drawn
Running Time: 137 minutes
UK Certificate: 15
One night in the Tokyo winter of 1899, as Dr Chiaki Ono (Takehiro Murata) and his wife are packing to move their surgery to Manchuria, they are visited by an elderly man with an ill grandson. Amidst the chaos of packing crates, the man, Hajime Saito (Koich Sato), spots an old photograph of a samurai, Kanichiro Yoshimura (Kiichi Nakai), whom he recognises from about thirty years earlier. The photo triggers in both Ono and Saito a Proustian series of complex and often contradictory memories of Yoshimura – memories that at first pull apart, and then put back together again, Yoshimura's status as the embodiment of the samurai's heroic code at a time when such a code was fast becoming an irrelevant detail of history.
Along with Yoji Yamada's superior The Twilight Samurai (2002) and Edward Zwick’s inferior The Last Samurai (2003), Yojiro Takita’s ‘When the Last Sword is Drawn’ (set in the same period) forms part of a growing body of revisionist ‘easterns’ that portray samurai values in their death throes – in much the same way that revisionist westerns like Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969) and Clint Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’ (1992) reexamined (and ultimately remythologised) the vanishing ideology of the cowboy. In Takita’s film, Yoshimura is depicted at the outset as a deeply unconventional samurai – clownish, obsessed with money, unconcerned with saving face, and always valuing wife and children over clan, life over death. The more traditional Saito’s first recollections of Yoshimura are as “the man I hated most”, “an awful country samurai bragging about home and family” – and his first impulse upon meeting him was to kill him on the spot. “What kind of samurai is that?” becomes a recurring question.
The younger Ono, on the other hand, who as a boy lived in the same provincial town as Yoshimura, remembers him more sympathetically as “strong and gentle”, a wise teacher and a skilled swordsman who deserted the local clan and sought work in Kyoto to prevent his beloved family from starving to death. As Saito and Ono begin to share drinks and memories, their view of the man in the photo starts to shift subtly, and the narrative that they weave together transforms a time-serving, mercenary buffoon, and the shabbily pointless end that he meets, into the superheroic apotheosis of samurai virtues whose crowning glory is an act of extraordinary self-sacrifice.
More than the mere nostalgia piece that it at first seems, ‘When the Last Sword is Drawn’ dramatises the manner in which nostalgia and maudlin sentimentality distort our picture of the past. As Saito and Ono direct their half-memories to the service of recuperating a fallen samurai, thus enabling themselves – and an entire nation in flux – to rediscover (and reinvent) their noble roots, the picture of Yoshimura twists this way and that under the strain of their revisionist accounts. He is BOTH a forward-thinking modernist concerned with his family and his own life above all else, AND a backward-thinking traditionalist bound by his duty to his clan and to the Shogun above all else – and the only occasion that these two contradictory images undergo something of a reconcilation, in the long and very moving scene of Yoshimura’s death, also happens to be an event to which neither of the two narrators, nor anyone else for that matter, was witness. For the film shows the hero Yoshimura, and the heroic code for which he in the end stands, to be as much a mythic construct of the imagination as a fact of history – and Saito’s sudden shift from despising to lionising Yoshimura reflects a change less in Yoshimura’s character than in Saito’s mind, drunk not only on sake but on memory itself.
So ‘When the Last Sword is Drawn’ is a historical samurai epic reminiscent of the style of Akira Kurosawa – but its interrogation of the relationship between history and memory makes it more like ‘Rashomon’ than like ‘The Seven Samurai’.
It's Got: A doctor, an aging samurai, a mercurial hero, and the unfolding of memory and myth-making over a single sake-fuelled evening.
It Needs: The tearjerker ending could be less mawkish (even if it does accurately reflect the reminiscences of two drinkers at their most maudlin).
Alternatives:Rashomon, The Last Samurai, The Twilight Samurai
A portrait of a samurai distorted by memory, myth-making and maudlin sentimentality.