What exactly does a good Samurai fight for? His master? His land? His country, even? I’m sure there’s plenty of reasons for men to take up arms against each other but none more pure than that of Yoshimura Konichiro, a masterful Samurai from a small town who travels inland to join the powerful ranks of the Shinsengumi. The true protagonist of ‘When The Last Sword Is Drawn’, Yoshimura is a man of honour though he comes across as a money-hungry freeloader.
That couldn’t be further from the truth, Yoshimura is a family man who has taken up a job as part of the Shinsengumi simply to feed his family. What he does is for love and I truly think that’s what makes HIM a legendary Samurai warrior. Told in a series of flashbacks, ‘When The Last Sword Is Drawn’ follows Yoshimura as he joins the special police force and eventually takes place in a large-scale battle which unfortunately leads to his death. A fellow Shinsengumi member, a man called Saito Hajime, many years after the events that lead him to befriend Yoshimura, takes his ill grandson to the local doctor’s office where he sees a photograph of his late friend. This then spurs on a conversation that lasts the entire movie, telling the story of their time together.
The film does a beautiful thing in that it tells a story of two polar-opposite men who, at first, can find no redeeming qualities in the other but come to a point of mutual respect, one that is remembered for many years to come. Alongside stories of prospering relationships and the true-to-life historical progression that the film portrayed came actual samurai stuff like duels and war, something that almost goes as a given for samurai movies but also something that occasionally gets forgotten about. while the film wasn’t ‘action-packed’, it did deliver certain scenes of combat during appropriate parts of the movie. If I wanted to see an all-out samurai action flick, I’d go and watch a movie that promised it. ‘When The Last Sword Is Drawn’ never gave the impression that it was made for the blood-thirsty audience member, instead it gave off an intellectual vibe and dealt with the all-too-real themes of loyalty, honour and love. To give a bit of criticism, the movie did tend to drag on quite a lot with a fair few of the scenes being mostly unnecessary.
There were plenty of times throughout the film where it should have simply ended, doing so at any of these opportunities would have driven the story home much better than the actual ending we were delivered. On some occasions there was actually too much explanation. Sometimes mystery does a film wonders but unfortunately it was the only thing this film lacked. I viewed this film as a part of the Japan Film Festival Encore so I was in a cinema alongside other audience members and, by the end of the movie, it was clear that it hadn’t entirely encapsulated each of the watchers. After the first hour and a half I noticed people beginning to get restless and though the session did end with a round of applause, murmurs quickly flooded the cinema and, from what I could hear, the biggest complaint was pacing.
What kept me going, apart from the fact that the story was brilliant, was the fantastic cast of actors and actresses that lent their talents to these characters. Kiichi Nakai who played the main character Yoshimura Konichiro actually won the award for Best Actor at the 2004 Japanese Academy Awards alongside his co-star Koichi Sato who also won an award for Best Supporting Actor that same year. Both of them, side by side, performed excellently! Mr. Nakai perfectly portrayed a happy-go-lucky family man with an honourable mentality and a rock-solid idea of what justice truly is. His co-star, Mr. Sato, did a great job at playing the cynical ‘loose-cannon’ type but it was them together that really makes the movie what it is.
While I enjoyed seeing them during independent scenes, it was the ones where they came together that really get me excited. The dueling mentalities of the two men felt almost real while being comedic enough to give the audience a nice laugh amidst the deep thoughts of friendship and honour and family and all that stuff. The rest of the cast was populated by other great actors but it seems as though they were pushed to the background simply because the two leads were outstanding. There were, however, a few actors that didn’t quite hit the mark. Certain scenes were almost unbearable because of this. When a supposed heartfelt scene involved two young actors yelling each others names over and over again, you tend to tune out. Especially when the acting is clearly overdone. This can be looked past though seeing as a majority of the movie is filled with top shelf performances.
Fans of Studio Ghibli animated films like ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ will know the name Joe Hisaishi who provided the music of most of those films of which he did the same for ‘When The Last Sword Is Drawn’. The soundtrack is populated mostly by orchestral tracks and occasionally some traditional Japanese music famous from the time the film was set. For the most part, the music fit perfectly with nothing left to be desired though I’d be lying if I was to say it wasn’t forgettable. No tracks really stood out to me but I can appreciate their presence in the movie as they helped create a sense of vibe and environment that probably couldn’t have been done by any other genre. It was a real treat to hear the traditional music of the time to which I’m actually quite a fan.
‘When The Last Sword Is Drawn’ tells a story that any real cinema fan can enjoy and although it drags on a little by the end, the overall experience of it is still a positive one. There are plenty of laughs to be had throughout and theatrical enough to keep audiences in their seats and focused. Set out like an older samurai flick, this movie knows exactly what it is doing and has just the right amount of violence and drama. Really the one big demerit against this movie is that it drags on quite a lot and tends to get a little boring near the end. The good thing about this is that, by the time you start to loose interest the bulk of the movie is over and you’re then given time to appreciate what you have seen. With good actors and some good music it’s hard to pass up ‘When The Last Sword Is Drawn’, especially if you’re someone like me who loves a good samurai film with some substance.
The film aired as part of the Japanese Film Fest Encore, for more information of the Japanese Film Fest check out the official site here.