Our story begins in 1899 - a late evening, a doctor's office and an old man with his grandson looking for help. He sees a picture, freezes and thinks "How could I forget him? Kanichiro Yoshimura. The man I hated most...". With that we flash back to the days when the Shogun fell and the two men were comrades in the "Wolves Of Mibu". A fine setup to "When The Last Sword Is Drawn" - the Japanese Academy Awards Best Picture winner of 2004.
Unfortunately, the film just doesn't make the most of it. It bounces back and forth between the past and the two men in the doctor's office - the old man Saito and the doctor himself (Yoshimura was his teacher and father of his best friend). They both separately flashback to Yoshimura's life in his village and with the Shinsengumi (the masterless samurai who are trying to defend the waning power of the Shogun). It has all the earmarks of a fine human story with swordplay (like the previous Academy Award winner from 2003 - "Twilight Samurai"), but never achieves much more than simply going from point A to point B. This is not a bad film mind you, but it struck me as having two major failings. The first was its method of building the characters. Unlike the more subtle "Twilight Samurai" where a character slowly comes to the fore through consistent actions and small moments, director Yojiro Takita tries to give each person their traits through specific scenes or incidents. It felt more like I was being briefed on the characters through a dossier as opposed to slowly getting to know them. Perhaps that's the intent given the structure of the film, but it failed to really pull me into these people's lives.
The second is the melodramatic nature of most of Yoshimura's family scenes. Melodrama itself is not the issue since it's just another filmic device that can be used effectively. However, the film seems to lean on it heavily in order to generate emotion from the audience when it should be coming naturally from the scene. For example, Yoshimura comes to the difficult decision that he must leave his village clan and find work elsewhere in order to feed his family. As he leaves one evening in the gentle falling snow, there's a tearful goodbye with his adorable 5 year old daughter on the bridge. If you can't generate some honest lumps in the throat from your audience in a scene like that without resorting to swelling strings and over-emoted line readings (I've said it before, just yelling something doesn't convey real emotion) then you haven't succeeded in getting the viewer invested in the characters.
It's a shame because the story holds a great deal of promise. Honour and betrayal are central themes that weave through not only the downfall of the Shogun (and the samurai who decide to switch sides and fight for the Emperor), but also in how the village treats Yoshimura and his family after he decides to leave. Without thought to his reasons, he is labelled a traitor and his family is forced to move as well. Due to this "betrayal" of his own clan, Yoshimura steadfastly refuses to leave the Shinsengumi - even when all hope is essentially lost. Saito recalls being impressed with Yoshimura and that "he was a true samurai", but he has his own issues with dealing with a man of such conviction and compassion. They each have different philosophies - Saito claims that "I'm only alive because no one will kill me", but Yoshimura states "I kill because I don't want to die". I wanted to see more of this relationship and how they each began to understand one another, but it never fleshed itself out.
There's some solid fight scenes in the film - in particular an early one in the rain between Saito and Yoshimura - and the combination of that plus the grand story of the Shogun losing their power, incidents of tuberculosis sweeping the villages and recollections by Saito that "The day of the sword was already far in the past...", could have made for a sweeping epic with historical insight and interesting flawed characters. It's disappointing that the film just doesn't capitalize on it.