When the Last Sword is Drawn tells a worthy story that is more than capable of holding our attention, but tells it at such length that its final third borders on redundancy. The first two-thirds of the film are excellent, and then we’re treated to an ending so drawn-out and exhaustive (and exhausting) that it robs the rest of the movie of a good deal of its narrative power. I see this kind of thing so often, I’m wondering if it is endemic. Maybe the filmmakers were worried that one ending wouldn’t do the trick, so they stacked as many of them as they could back-to-back.
It’s a shame because what’s good in the movie is very good indeed. Sword deals with the twilight years of Japan’s Shogunate in the mid-1800s, when sympathies were divided between the old feudal system and the possibilities of creating a new, more modern Japan. The Shogunate’s Shinsengumi, an elite guard of sorts, came into being to protect the old order from all enemies, foreign or domestic, but few people imagined the Shinsengumi would eventually become one of its own worst enemies as loyalties grew divided and their power waned. Other movies have also examined the Shinsengumi’s rise and fall — Gohatto, for one, or the as-yet-untranslated The Men Who Assassinated Ryoma. Sword is actually closest in spirit to Twilight Samurai, though, another movie about men who are faced with the grim prospect of becoming historical irrelevancies.
At first Saito despises the yokel-ish Yoshimura, a bad sentiment since the two
have to fight side-by-side in the embattled Shinsengumi.
Saito (Kochi Sato) is one of the most loyal of the Shinsengumi, who have by this time acquired the nickname “The Wolves of Mibu” for their ferociousness. One day a new draftee comes in, a backwoods fellow named Kanichiro Yoshimura (Kiichi Nakai), and Saito is amazed at how quickly he despises the fellow. Outwardly, Yoshimura isn’t anything like the other Shinsengumi — there’s something faintly doltish and simpleminded about him. His smile is too broad, too fawning. He bores Saito with dumb small talk about his homeland. He’s even bowled over just by the idea that he’s being paid to do this, and talks a little bit too much about money for everyone else’s comfort. What’s more, his motives are suspect: he left his family and his clan to come be with the Shinsengumi so that he might send his wages back to them.
Saito loathes the other man so that the first night of his entry into the Shinsengumi, he decides to draw his sword and kill him in a rainy street at night. But Yoshimura’s swordsmanship is a strong match for Saito’s — strong enough that it throws his other, gentler behavior into sharp relief. “I kill because I don’t want to die,” he says at one point, and that sums up his whole philosophy of life. He’s unsophisticated in many ways, but that doesn’t make him unprofound. What Saito really envies is not the other man’s skills, or even his baldfaced honesty, but his reverence for life, even when it leads Saito into terrible suffering or makes him do questionable things.
Yoshimura's gentler and harsher sides co-exist in a strange harmony that Saito finds hard to fathom.
There’s one scene in particular that brings this home. In it, Yoshimura examines the corpse of one of their comrades and uses a very elegant line of deduction to show that the man was not killed by two conspirators, but by one very agile one who happened to be left-handed. Saito is the killer, of course, having carried out a (forbidden) personal vendetta, and Yoshimura very elegantly uses the incident as blackmail. But the money he milks from Saito, like all of his other earnings, goes right back into supporting his wife and child; in fact, it’s hard to think that he even sees it as being blackmail. He is simply doing what to him is the right thing on all fronts. Sometimes he fakes it, as in one very funny moment when he smears himself with a dead enemy’s blood to make himself look that much more vicious.
The rivalry between them continues, ebbing and flowing, and finally culminates when they and the rest of the Shinsengumi are embroiled in an essentially futile battle that will most certainly get them all killed badly. Where the movie goes with this (which I won’t reveal here) actually put a hole in one of the more obvious theories I was building about the movie: namely, the more cold-blooded Saito represents Japan’s past, and Yoshimura its more humanistic future. Better to say they both embody elements about their country that are not easily reconciled — determination in the face of sure defeat, and a newfound impulse towards humanism, to name two. The movie also quietly suggests that said elements have never really been reconciled, not even well into the modern age.
The two men make their last stand in a battle that is sure to spell the end for their whole way of life.
The director, Yojiro Takata, was also responsible for the Onmyoji films, but his approach here is much more intelligent and stately. He gives the movie a lush and meticulous look, and frames the action through an Amadeus-like flashback device: Saito (as an old man) recounts his history with Yoshimura to a younger listener, and in the process realizes, deep down, he respected Yoshimura far more than he wanted to admit. There is also the suggestion that Saito is jealous of the way Yoshimura was able to be lionized after his death, although I am not sure if the movie understands how saccharine some of this material really is. The only other time Takata falls down is when he goes into the home stretch, where he lingers on an endless assembly line of details that could easily have been cut down to one-fifth its length and lost none of its impact.
One area where the film never fails is in the acting. Kiichi (Owl’s Castle, Onmyoji II) brings a peculiar kind of dignity to Yoshimura. Late in the movie there is a scene where he delivers an rousing, inspirational speech to his fellow Shinsengumi, and at the very end you can see the façade slipping ever so slightly. Koichi Sato (he did a great job as Yagyu Jubei in the 2003 remake of Makai Tensho) is a little more straightforward. He’s a simmering bundle of repressed anger that slowly becomes sadness, and then remorse, but the way the changes are delineated over time is elegant. I enjoyed watching them both shine in their roles — yes, even when the film wasn’t doing much to help them.