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A jidai-geki about a man brought down by ambition and Japan in the grip of social and political change
The movie can be best defined through the combination of its Japanese and English titles. On one hand, it is a movie about the life and times of Ryoma Sakamoto, the titular Ambitious, a low-ranked samurai who fought (and died) trying to usher Japan in the modern era. On the other hand, his life is tightly interwoven with the historical context he was so pivotal in: the bakumatsu, a Japanese term that designates the end of 300 years reign of Tokugawa Shogunate that culminated with the restoration of Emperor Meiji in 1868 and the civil war of Boshin. There's a wikipedia article that will be great help to anyone totally unfamiliar with the events.
Alain Silver describes the filmic Ryoma Sakamoto (an important historical figure for 19th century Japanese history), played with vigour by Kinnosuke Nakamura, as "a man of vaguely idealistic goals tinged with a ruthless pragmatism, a man impatient for both social change and self-advancement - in short, a mixture of cynic and populist". While I would disagree that he's more romantic than cynic and not so much a populist as a genuine visionary, the fact remains that The Ambitious is a perfectly fitting title.
Mixing historical context with fiction, The Ambitious combines the political intrigue and convoluted plots associated with the jidai-geki of the 60's with a few swordfighting scenes, but it's definitely more concerned with following Sakamoto and his feverish dreams of revolution and a unified Japan with a nationalistic consciousness than it is with hack and slash bloodlet. However violence is always pivotal in the film, underscoring the clash of the old and new.
The closing discussion between Sakamoto and his friend Nakaoka that reveals their different mentalities and how Sakamoto (sided with the Imperialists though he may be) dreams of a Japan without Emperor and without samurais, where everyone is equal ("we're all human"), is followed by a bloodbath. In The Ambitious violence and politics go hand in hand, one always coming as a consequence to the other.
Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai provide the iconic genre aspect in their short roles (Mifune really has more of a cameo) and it's generally a well-made film that is more of a character study based on the real life of Sakamoto than it is an out and out chambara.
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