"The problem with Japanese movies today," I said to someone else not long ago, "is that all their teeth have been pulled." The samurai movies of the 1960s and 1970s — Goyokin, Shura, Samurai Rebellion, Hara-kiri, most any of Kurosawa's films — were bold and nondoctrinaire, daring Japan to challenge its own image of itself, and with an unsparing view of how the samurai code of old was not only inhumane but counterproductive. Today, the mood is far more sentimental (When the Last Sword is Drawn) than it is confrontatory. Only rarely do maverick productions like Gojoe, or Battle Royale for that matter, come along.
Tadashi Imai's Bushido, from 1963, belongs alongside all the rest of those cage-rattling samurai productions, but for multiple reasons. It's a creative look at how the samurai code destroyed and stunted the lives of those who practiced it, by following several generations of men from the same family down from samurai days of yore to the present day, where such a code incarnates itself as deference to authority that takes away with both hands what it bestowes with one. The film also works as a vehicle for one of Japan's most flamboyant and commanding actors from that period, Kinnosuke Nakamura, and one of the natural end results of watching this film ought to be to seek out most everything else he's been in.
Better dead as a warrior than alive as a laughingstock: a sentiment that reaches down through the generations.
Bushido opens in the present day, with Iikura (Nakamura) contemplating the near-suicide of the woman who loved him. He re-opens the chronicles of his family's ancestors, records that stretch back centuries, and mulls over the fates of the men in his bloodline. The fact that Iikura comes from samurai stock would nominally be a mark of pride, but there's scarcely a generation before him that wasn't in some way crushed and oppressed by the samurai code. The very thing that should have given them power instead became, time and again, their undoing. Worse, the society surrounding each successive generation finds novels ways to reincarnate the oppression.
To wit: One of Iikura's distant warrior ancestors, already well into old age, commits suicide as a way to atone for making an error in judgment during combat. His son, spared because of the father's repentance, loses his position when his lord lashes out at him during a bout of illness. When the lord dies, he follows him in death as well: better to be dead and honorable than alive and a laughingstock. There is a telling scene where a group of peasants speak admiringly of this very trait: they believe in this form of loyalty, too, even when later in the film we see how it makes their own lives miserable.
The son of the next generation fares well at first — he's a bright and handsome young man — but he ends up becoming singled out in court as a sexual companion for his own lord. Humiliated, he retaliates by having an affair with a lady of the court, and for this is castrated — but not before siring a child with the lady in question. That son, in turn, a cold-eyed man with a brutal sword style, is tricked into killing his own family as a punishment. His descendent becomes a sunny-faced, bright-eyed young student who foolishly opts for caring for one of the now-demented lords of his fiefdom, out of — what else? — a sense of obligation to a now-dying system.
And then comes the present day, where Iikura's brother is shown never returning from his kamikaze mission in WWII (a sequence that's glossed over with dismaying haste). Iikura himself, a humble deskworker, is pressured into extracting rival corporate secrets from the typist he's dating. It ends, yet again, in humiliation and despair, but Iikura and Imai alike leave us with something resembling a germ of hope. Maybe, the movie hints, the dead hands of the past and the demands of society can relax their grip just enough to allow people to live as they wish for once — but the movie also doesn't believe for a second such a thing is easy.
The movie's forceful social critique isn't the only striking thing about it. There's also Nakamura's amazing performance, in no less than six different roles. The fresh-faced student and the callow, soft-eyed young samurai; the cold-eyed killer and the half-dead old warrior; it's a turn at least as impressive as the ones Peter Sellers pulled in Dr. Strangelove or Lolita (you choose). Actually, I was reminded most of Kōji Yakusho, normally cast as humdrum Everymen, but the best thing in the otherwise feeble samurai romp Dora-heita. The diversity of roles he's managed to collect over time are reminiscent of the ones packed into this single film. Nakamura didn't play everyman types often — he was most at home in roles where he spat fire and rolled his eyes — but he was just as effective dialed down as when he was dialed up, and the contrast he provides between his different performances gives the movie's argument all the more weight. Even the crueler and more hard-nosed men in this bloodline, it seems to be saying, gained nothing under this system.
Director Imai made a long career of pointed and powerful social critique through his films. In 1956 he made a name for himself with Darkness at Noon, adapted not from Arthur Koestler's novel but rather from Hiroshi Masaki's book about a true-life 1951 case. A young man was arrested for a robbery-murder and managed to implicate several other innocent young men — all of whom were violently coerced into confessing, and whose coerced confessions were upheld as being valid on appeal, even after they had been given sentences ranging from death to life in prison. That film has not been released in English yet, but its general themes of injustice and discompassionate authority are right in line with this film. I should also mention the composer of the nervy musical score, Toshiro Mayuzumi, who like Toru Takemitsu has enjoyed a career both as a serious composer and as a supplier of major-league film scores without either one of those facets being compromised.
Bushido was adapted from a novel by Norio Nanjo, whose work also inspired the manga and anime Shigurui, another scarifying (sometimes literally so) look at how the cult of masculinity and discipline amongst samurai was more often than not used to simply keep them powerless. None of his work has been translated into English, except by way of Shigurui and this film being distributed in English-speaking territories. I suspect we are missing out.