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Moving Japanese drama about a turbulent period of history
THE LAST SAMURAI (1974) is an epic drama about the modernization of Japan in the years 1863-1877 and is not to be confused with the Hollywood film of that title starring Tom Cruise and released in 2003, even if the time periods covered overlap a bit. This film, directed by Kenji Misumi, is not so much about the physical or cosmetic changes in the country during that period, as the westernization process began in earnest, but about the changes in the hearts and minds of the people as embodied in one man, Toranosuke Sugi (Hideki Takahashi). Raised by a pro-Shogun swordsman, Toranosuke is encouraged to go to Edo (Tokyo) and adapt to the new age, even if it means going against the Shogun. Toranosuke winds up as a witness on the margins of a whole series of important events of a period marked by civil war and social upheaval, and has friends on all sides of the conflict. He manages to rise above it all, but does not come out unscathed by it. The film itself doesn't condemn any of the participants, aside from those who behave the most cowardly and viciously, it simply sees the changes wrought upon Japan during that period as inevitable and the destinies of its characters irrevocable. It mourns the casualties but doesn't suggest they could have done anything differently. Only Toranosuke, who took his teacher's words to heart, is able to personify the new spirit of Japan.
It's a long film, 158 minutes, and it tells its story in an episodic format, divided into two parts. There are ellipses in the narrative and an abundance of characters whom the audience is assumed to be familiar with, including Saigo Takamori, a key figure in the Meiji Restoration. Japanese audiences won't need a primer beforehand, but American audiences might. It will help to have seen other films on the subject beforehand, including films on the Shinsengumi, the infamous band of pro-Shogun fighting men aligned against the Imperial forces, featured most notably in two films that have come out on DVD in recent years: THE SHINSENGUMI CHRONICLES:I WANT TO DIE A SAMURAI (1963) and SHINSENGUMI: ASSASSINS OF HONOR (1970), which I've also reviewed on IMDb. There is a large cast of characters, including four major male characters and three female characters. The female characters are generally assertive and straightforward about what they want and don't sit at home waiting patiently for their men to come back. One of them even becomes a nun for a while, but that doesn't stop her from having an active love life.
This was the last film directed by Misumi, who is better known for his Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub movies and also directed THE SHINSENGUMI CHRONICLES. This one just might be his best. He adopts a restrained, classical approach to his storytelling here, and, except for one spectacular revenge scene with a fitting gruesome end for its target, goes easy on the blood and gore. THE LAST SAMURAI tells the story of the rebirth of a nation, as experienced on the ground by the common people, and is masterfully told and beautifully presented.
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