Judge Joel Pearce is pleased to announce that this tale of the end of Japan's Edo Period is blessedly free of Katie Holmes-affianced Scientologists.
"How could I forget him? Kanichiro Yoshimura. The man I hatedmost…and in those mad days when the shogun fell, my comrade in the Wolves of Mibu."—Saito
I didn't know much about When the Last Sword is Drawn before I watched it, except that it beat out Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi at the 2003 Japanese Academy Awards. I was expecting a slow-paced drama, similar to The Twilight Samurai. I didn't expect this level of humor and humanity, blended into a traditional story to create a fine samurai movie.
Facts of the Case
An old man brings his grandson to see a young doctor in the middle of the night. As the doctor's wife looks after the boy, the old man notices a photograph of a samurai. The photograph is of Kanichiro Yoshimura (Kiichi Nakai, Warriors of Heaven and Earth), who was part of the Shinsengumi, a guardian of the Shogun during the final days of the Edo period. The doctor reveals himself to be Chiaki Ono (Takehiro Murata, Godzilla 2000), who remembers Yoshimura fondly as a teacher. The old man eventually admits to being Hajime Saito (Koichi Sato, Another Battle), who also served with the Shinsengumi.
In flashbacks, these two men piece together the story of Yoshimura, an unconventional samurai who was alternately loved and hated by the warriors around him.
Many samurai movies have fought to humanize these tough warriors, especially during the last days of their influence in Japan. Although I wouldn't call When the Last Sword is Drawn an action movie, its story of fading fighters is analogous to Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. By the end of the Edo period, there was a vast overabundance of samurai, a class of old-fashioned warriors who clung to their swords and the power they had once wielded. In fact, they had clung to this power for so long, that they didn't notice the world had changed around them. While the rest of the world was building armies with rifles, the samurai continued to train warriors with swords. The last to adapt to the new brand of warfare got hit the hardest. The ideology of the people was changing at the same time, as the world around Japan was quickly modernizing.
And so, in this new and different world, a very different man becomes the ideal samurai. In the old world, Saito would have been greatly respected. He is a fine swordsman, takes his work seriously, battles for the honor of his lord, and plays the social role expected of him. When he is overlooked as successor due to the system's nepotism, he becomes angry. Watching the highly unconventional Yoshimura arrive and gain credibility in this new world is the last straw for him. Yoshimura cares about his family more than he cares about his own position. He is downright mercenary in his willingness to bend the rules for money. He is also a very emotional man, always wearing his heart on his sleeve. At first, Saito hates him, and it's easy to understand why. Although Yoshimura is a highly skilled swordsman, he represents everything that Saito sees changing around him.
In fact, Yoshimura recognizes the development as it happens. Chiaki recalls that Yoshimura taught him to stay ahead of the curve. He is a samurai who understands that it's only by changing with the times that the order will be able to survive. That teaching is what led him to be a doctor, and probably what pushed him to journey to Manchuria. The question remains, though, how much of the good aspects of the samurai culture were lost during this transition. Many samurai films show the adoption of guns as a cowardly move that disrupts a long and noble tradition. When the Last Sword is Drawn fits into a more contemporary trend, showing the corruption that had rotted the samurai culture to the core. The training and elitism of the system remained, but a true sense of loyalty had long since been passed by in favor of a desire for money and power. Saito initially confuses Yoshimura as another one of these money-driven samurai, even though his motivations are more complex. It's this complicated nature of the characters that makes the film worth watching.
But that's not the only reason it's entertaining. When the Last Sword is Drawn is also an uncommonly fun drama. It has a sly sense of humor, using the humanity of the characters to elicit smiles and laughs. There are a number of comical moments, subdued enough that the film never quite slips into comedy. There are also a number of genuinely surprising moments, and the film never lets you get too comfortable. My only real complaint is that the end drags on a bit too much. With a bit more aggressive editing in the last act, this would have been one of the greatest samurai movies I've ever seen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The quality of this DVD release is another story altogether. While this may come as a shock to Wellspring and the other small studios that often handle foreign films, North America is not the only continent to release films with Dolby 5.1 and DTS tracks. Also, though it may have been easy to miss, many people who watch DVDs do so on systems that can decode and play back these 5.1 tracks. Both the Japanese and Korean editions of When the Last Sword is Drawn have DTS tracks, so why do we only get stereo? The sound is murky and disappointing, lacking the depth and separation that would come with a decent surround track. The video transfer is also less than impressive. Although it is anamorphic, it has been windowboxed down to approximately 1.66:1, and there's some nasty combing due to an improper remaster. Once again, I don't understand why a company would create or buy a crappy transfer when there's already a nice one available. It makes no sense.
There are a number of odd things listed under special features, including "stereo" and "subtitle control." Fortunately, there is also a production featurette as well as a collection of interviews. Like most Asian production featurettes, all we get is a block of behind-the-scenes footage, as we see the cast and crew stumble around between takes. The interviews are more interesting, as key figures discuss their interpretations of the film.
As so often happens with Asian films, my recommendation is altered by the poor quality of the DVD. When the Last Sword is Drawn is a fine samurai film, and one that deserves to be sought out. I wouldn't advise anyone to buy this disc, though. If you have the ability to play discs from other regions, it would be worth hunting down a superior international copy. Otherwise, go rent this edition, and hope that these companies start to deliver what we want in the future.
The cast and crew of this fine film are free to go. Wellspring is ordered to seriously consider its loyalty to the films it releases.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
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