The Twilight Samurai (2002) Yoji Yamada

Following the death of his wife, a poor samurai, Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), struggles to raise his two young daughters and keep his senile mother. His colleagues at the store-house nickname him “Twilight” as he always returns home early rather than join them for drinks. We learn that Seibei is a peaceful, forward-thinking man, who is skilled with a short sword. He is befriended by Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) whom he has known since childhood, but their relationship is fraught with problems. Knowing of his skill with a sword the clan tasks him with the assassination of another rogue samurai, promising greater profits in return. At first hesitant, he acquiesces to this order from the lord.

Based on the short story “The Bamboo Sword” by Shuhei Fujisawa and directed by Yoji Yamada, the film creates an authentic period atmosphere, with expertly designed sets and costumes. The story is an archetypal samurai drama, with illicit romances, honour and ideals of war and peace played out perfectly. The audience is drawn in by the masterful direction, which really gives a feel of closeness with the characters. The acting is exceptionally emotive, and the young child actors are particularly good in their roles.

Myriad themes are interwoven, but above all it is the story of a generation of samurai becoming obsolete. Seibei’s peaceful, unprejudiced ideologies are mocked in the film, but will resonate with modern audiences. This tragic yet uplifting story of the passing of the samurai age is a must watch.

Seven Samurai (1954) by Akira Kurosawa

A small farming village in feudal Japan is facing starvation as their crops are being taken by bandits. They set out to look for samurai who they can hire to protect them. The first Kanbei (Takashi Shimura), recruits five more, and they are later joined by the unusual Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a commoner who claims to be a samurai. Together they return to the village to defend it from the bandits.

The film is epic in scope with many characters and situations to explore. The plot is relatively straight-forward, but beautifully executed and, despite a long running time, it holds the viewer’s interest throughout. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is instrumental in creating a sense of momentum and the expert composition of shots would inspire filmmakers for generations to come. The music by Fumio Hayasaka is tense and dramatic and used sparingly. There are many scenes where the painting-like shots are left to be appreciated in silence. The cast all do a superb job, Toshiro Mifune again proves to be Kurosawa’s muse, having many hilarious moments in the comic role of Kikuchiyo. Takashi Shimura as the leader of the group, who must gather together this gang of seven to defend the village, also manages to carry the sense of stoic leadership and martial prowess.

Essentially an action film, “Seven Samurai” takes its time in building up the characters and the set-pieces are far from gratuitous, being carried out with real emotion. Through the film run undercurrents of philosophical and moral concepts, with the samurai code of conduct scrutinized and the struggles and fortitude of the common man praised. A film worthy of the accolades and recognition it has received.

Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (1955) by Tomu Uchida

Genpachi (Chiezo Kataoka) and Genta (Daisuke Kato) are retainers to samurai Sakawa Kojuro (Teruo Shimada), on their way to Edo. Along the road they meet various fellow travellers. A young boy interested in becoming a spear-carrier like Genpachi, a shamisen player (Chizuru Kitagawa) and her daughter, a policeman on the trail of a thief, among others. The fates of everyone on the road become intertwined with both humorous and tragic results.

“Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji” is directed by Tomu Uchida from a script by Shintaro Mimura and Fuji Yahiro. It is an interesting story with both comedic elements and more serious social themes explored through the various characters. The humour may be a little outdated and slapstick but the two servants Genpachi and Genta are likeable and relatable enough, carrying the burden of supporting their master on his journey. In the later half of the film the tone shifts and is much more downbeat and pessimistic. The cinematography is well-done and in particular the staging and framing of every shot shows a masterful understanding of technique, utilising theatrical staging with more modern techniques such as overhead shots.

The film has a strong social message regarding the class system that is as strikingly relevant today as it was at the time of release, and even during the period when the film is set. Our attention is drawn early to the various professions of the travellers on the road, in particular the difference between the status of Genpachi and Genta and their master Kojuro. The turning point of the film comes when Kojuro receives the praise for the actions of Genpachi and we realise that respect is something that is inherited rather than earned. The film augments this central theme with the characters of the mother whose daughter is to be sold into prostitution. Also, with the arrogance of the samurai whom Kojuro meets later in the film. It is a passionate appeal that a person’s worth not be judged by their social standing, but by their actions. At the end of the film, Genpachi warns the boy not to become a spear-carrier. This may be a plea to the audience that they should never be bound by the disputes of others, or a more pessimistic acknowledgement of an unavoidable fate. One of the characters earlier in the film makes reference to the fact they everyone has a master, “But who is the lord’s master?” he asks. A deity? Are we doomed from birth to walk a particular path. And does it always end in violence?

Killing (2018)

Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a samurai boarding in a village of rural farmers. He has a relationship with one of the women in the village, Yu (Yu Aoi), and spars with her brother Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda) daily. Their peaceful existence is interrupted by the appearance of another samurai, Jirozaemon Sawamura (Shinya Tsukamoto), whom they witness defeating another man in a duel. Sawamura conscripts the Mokunoshin and Ichisuke to join him on a trip to Edo and Kyoto, which they agree with, Mokunoshin reluctantly and Ichisuke happily. Sadly, their plans are disrupted by the appearance of a group of ronin whom the villagers fear are there to rob them. Events soon turn violent and Tsuzuki is caught up in a world of death that he had avoided until then.

Written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, “Killing” is on the surface a simple samurai story, though with a dark subtext. The sets and costume design are perfectly evocative of the period and the score by Chu Ishikawa compliments the action perfectly with drums and traditional instrumentation. Where the film strays from the well-trodden path of other samurai dramas is in its arthouse aesthetic. The story is pared back to its essentials, that is to say it is about the taking of life and what this means for the person who does it. The sword-fighting and sparring sequences are well-choreographed and have a fluidity and intensity that makes them a joy to watch. When real swords are used, the film does not shy away from blood spatter and some wince-inducing injuries. There is also humour, often darkly comic, employed to great effect. Tsukamoto is a director with a unique style and will often use a conventional idea in an unusual way. One example is in a scene between Tsuzuki and Yu, that is both tender and erotic without being explicit. It also, as with many other scenes, manages to capture wordlessly yet perfectly exactly what the relationship is between the characters. Dialogue is often sparse with the performances speaking for themselves and the cast do an excellent job with their roles. Ikematsu is brooding and troubled with the path he is set on; Yu Aoi is a tough foil for him, the emotional mirror to the seemingly cold samurai characters. Tsukamoto himself is suitably intimidating as the deadly swordsman, almost personifying death itself. Certain stylistic flourishes, such as darkening the camera, are used sparingly but to great effect throughout. The film’s simplicity may not appeal to everyone, but it allows the themes room to breathe and allows the audience to experience the emotional turmoil of the characters without the need to follow excessive characters or subplots.

As the title suggests, this is a film about killing. Tsuzuki is a man who shies away from violence. His life in the village, despite daily training, is an easy one and he appears comfortable. Sawamura’s appearance is almost like a dark spirit descending on the villagers. The notion of a spirit becomes more apparent at the very end of the film as an unseen force seems to be drifting through the forest searching for its next victim. Sawamura tells Tsuzuki that to not use his sword makes it meaningless. He exists to kill. In this way Sawamura represents the very evil of murder itself, appearing in this rural idyll and setting of a catastrophic chain of events. “Killing” also discusses the theme of revenge, whether it is ever justified and whether a cycle of revenge can ever be broken. ‘Kill or be killed’ is an oft used phrase, but this film exposes the horror of the sentiment in recognizing that there is no good option. Of course, most would consider killing to be preferable, but that leads to a loss of self that is almost as devastating as being killed. “Killing” examines this moral conundrum in a way that leaves a lasting impression, building to a darkly satisfying climax. The film is a philosophical take on the popular samurai genre that dissects what it means to kill and whether killing strips us of our humanity.

The Sword of Doom (1966)

The film opens as an old man and his daughter are crossing the hills, almost at the end of their long journey. When the girl rushes off to get water, her grandfather is brutally cut down by a samurai, without provocation. This samurai is Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai). We follow him back to his village where he is to take on a rival for the position of leader of their swordfighting school. When his opponent’s wife, Ohama (Michiyo Aratama), pleads with him to let her husband win, Ryunosuke arranges to meet her late at night at a mill where he then rapes her. Spurred on by his anger, his opponent, Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichiro Nakaya), lunges at Ryunosuke after their bout ends. Ryunosuke, an unmatched skill with the sword, counters, striking a fatal blow. He leaves town, cutting down a number of men who attempt to take revenge for the slaying of their leader. Two years later the action has moved to Edo, where Ryunosuke is now living with Ohama. He joins a group of mercenaries, a perfect fit for someone lacking any moral compass. Ryunosuke continues in his violent path, caring little for those around him, and killing without compunction. Later, he is troubled by visions of those he has killed, striking out in a blind rage as the ghosts of his past come back to haunt him.

“The Sword of Doom” is based on the book “The Great Bodhisattva Pass” by Kaizan Nakazato, previously adapted into works of the same title as the novel. The screenplay is by Shinobu Hashimoto, who worked on a number of Akira Kurosawa films including “Rashomon” and “The Hidden Fortress”. Director Kihachi Okamoto brings forth the deadly threat of the period with expert use of long, still takes broken by flashes of violent action sequences. The opening scene, with its shock death early on shows the audience that death and violence lurk constantly behind the seemingly calm surface of rules and ritual commonly assumed of the period. The duel between Ryunosuke Tsukue and Bunnojo Utsuki is a masterclass in creating tension; as the two face off against each other every tiny movement becomes cause for concern. This is achieved through firstly setting up both characters as a serious threat. The audience is more than aware that either could easily kill the other and most probably will. The soundtrack throughout, with the clack of bokken breaking the silences, perfectly captures this sense of dread, making you aware of the frailty of human life and how quickly it can be snatched away. Nakadai’s Ryunosuke is a heartless anti-hero, compelling yet hard to feel any remorse for. The rest of the cast act as a perfect foil for him, reflecting the evil in his own heart by their own purity of purpose and display of emotional depth. Yuzo Kayama plays Hyoma Utsuki, the brother of the fallen duellist and intent on revenge. Michiyo Aratama, as Ryunosuke’s unwilling wife, offers an insight into the struggles of women in this period characterised by violence and an almost pathological reverence for the “way of the sword”. Toshiro Mifune is well-cast as Toranosuke Shimada, the leader of a swordfighting school and a match in skill to Ryunosuke. Yoko Naito plays Omatsu, who having lost her grandfather at the beginning of the film, is part of a major subplot as she attempts to first win over the local lord, and later finds employment as a courtesan, coming face to face with her grandfather’s killer at the film’s climax.

“The Sword of Doom” portrays the ultimate anti-hero in Ryunosuke Tsukue. He is a man with few virtues other than his ultimate skill with a katana. There is a repeated line in the film about the reflection of a man’s soul in his sword. This link is perhaps the key to understanding the message of the film. Ryunosuke has poured every part of himself into his sword, he is no longer capable of compassion or empathy, to many extents he is the embodiment of a vengeful spirit, demonic in his dedication to swordfighting. His cold expression speaks to the emptiness at the heart of his character. By dedicating himself to the art of war, he has become the horror of war itself, with no room left in him for love, friendship, honour, mercy, or any other trait that might mark him as human. The final act of the film sees him crumble in completely, no longer able to hold himself together and becoming no more than his anger and swordsmanship. The final shot of the film sees his face contorted, having lost all humanity he is doomed to die or be endlessly tortured by what he has done.