Intellectual but sometimes confusing political thriller
This rarely-seen Japanese film centres around a mysterious wandering ronin Hachiro Kiyokawa (Tetsuro Tanba) as he juggles between the Shogunate and the Emperor sympathisers in 19th-century Japan. As the pre-credits text informs us (in detail), four American warships arrived in 1853, upsetting the political balance in Japan, as the country divides into the Liberal Shogunate, and the Imperialists who want all foreign influence banished. Kiyokawa's story is told by various supporting players in flashback and the film jumps around a detailed timeline. We never know or fully understand Kiyokawa's intentions and political preference as he proves unpredictable and at time, extremely ruthless.
The film is more of a political thriller than a traditional samurai film, full of conversations in dark rooms, back-stabbings, bargains and power-shifts. Director Masahiro Shinoda never feels like he has to make it easy for the audience to follow, as the large cast of minor players are never fully developed enough, so it's difficult to keep up with who is who. This, I feel, works both for and against the film. It is on one hand highly intelligent and intellectually stimulating, but on the other hand it allows the plot to become convoluted. It's a shame because I would like to have had time to soak up the mysterious atmosphere, and the beautiful cinematography on show. It is though, as a whole, a very good film, and one I will watch again when I get the chance, in order to wrap my tiny brain around the complex plot.
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