After viewing “Sword of Desperation” you’d be forgiven if you thought all of Shohei Fujisawa’s stories concerned unlucky samurai with secret sword techniques. Hideyuki Hirayama’s film has the unhappy distinction of following Yoji Yamada’s award-winning Fujisawa trilogy (“Twilight Samurai”, “Hidden Blade”, “Love and Honor”) and recalls those films in many ways, not the least of which being a very familiar-feeling protagonist. Of course Fujisawa wrote a variety of tales, but this must have felt like a safe bet—especially for a director like Hirayama, whose most notable previous work (two “Haunted School” pictures, 2003’s unfortunate “Samurai Resurrection”) was not exactly art-house fare. “Sword of Desperation” may have worked reasonably well were it not for the inevitable comparison with Yamada’s movies. It’s a fine film at first glance, but very little here is either new or crafted with such artistry as to surpass what we’ve seen before.
Hirayama bookends the film with two very dramatic (and very different) sequences. The opening is a courtyard concert with all the principals in attendance, introduced one by one. Traditional music and dance lead to an audacious yet calm murder: court swordsman Sanzaemon (Etsushi Toyokawa) gets up, apologizes to, and then stabs the Daimyo’s favorite mistress, the bold and manipulative Renko (Megumi Seki). As she drops to the floor lifeless, Sanzaemon kneels before the head retainer, lays down his sword, and apologizes for the inconvenience. The scene is meant to jar the viewer and it does, setting the stage for all that follows. Also meant to jar is the closing sequence, a bloody sword battle in a stone garden during a downpour. The result here isn’t quite so elegant. Though exciting and well staged, it stretches viewer credulity far beyond the breaking point. (When a human takes such unbelievable abuse, particularly from sword slashes, I expect to see a titanium endoskeleton peeking through the ripped flesh. Though it may be unfair to the director, I half believe Hirayama agreed to make the rest of the film’s talky bits in order to shoot this fight; tonally it has more in common with “Samurai Resurrection” than the film in which it appears.)
The bulk of the film alternates between the “now” of Sanzaemon’s punishment (a year’s confinement and a reduction in his rice stipend, the leniency of which being a hint that something isn’t kosher) and flashbacks to the events preceding the concubine’s murder. At home, locked in a barn for a monastic year, Sanzaemon whittles wood sculptures and considers what he did. Hirayama differentiates these flashbacks with a rather obvious fade to black and white at the end of each—a visual cue more appropriate to TV drama than a feature film of this pedigree. The glimpses into the past reveal that Renko made a habit of overstepping her bounds, using her influence with the Daimyo to alter, then dictate, political policy. A vicious little beast, she demands that loyal workers commit hara kiri for slight offenses and at one point gleefully suggests that the army behead each and every one of the “smelly farmers” who object to a sharp tax hike in a bad year for crops. Seki, perhaps best known for her lead in “Koi wa Go Shichi Go” as an outcast teen, clearly relishes strong woman roles but this is just shy of caricature. Castle staff are delighted and relieved at her murder, robbing Sanzaemon’s actions of any moral weight. The film makes it painfully clear that for the health of the clan, she had to die; only her handmaiden and the foppish and impressionable Daimyo (a petulant Jun Murakami) seem to grieve at her death.
Toyokawa has made many well-regarded films in his decades as an actor, but between his lead role in 2004’s Tange Sazen relaunch “Sazen” and especially his stoic badass role as Ocho in the 20th Century Boys trilogy, he’s become a marquee name. He’s very good in “Sword of Desperation”, but perhaps too cerebral. Despite his size and tough guy demeanor, his Sanzaemon seems thoughtful and introspective yet the story requires him to be nobly naïve enough to fall victim to castle politicking. By the time it occurs to him that all is not what it seems it’s well past too late, and it feels like something of a cheat given how the character has behaved until then. Still, Toyokawa does a man’s job, and Chizuru Ikewaki does her best work to date as his devoted and smitten niece. The rest of the film’s characters are undeveloped enough that the actors involved (among them talented veterans Fumiyo Kohinata and Ittoku Kishibe) aren’t asked to stretch beyond what’s obvious. Sadly, neither is the viewer. In his samurai trilogy, Yamada inserted bits of humor and got nuanced performances from actors not known for such, and in so doing elevated simple genre tales into art. Hirayama manages to assemble a more talented group, but with lesser returns. “Sword of Desperation” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but not being a classic doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing. Unfortunately its similarities to Yamada’s films are such that they can’t be ignored, but with lowered expectations in place it’s a just-better-than-average jidaigeki.