Thursday, 17 December 2015

Film Review - 'Sword of Desperation'

Sword of Desperation is a movie about Samurai, - and, one that features a central protagonist who we are told, early on, happens to be an expert swordsman. It even has the word 'sword' right there, in the title. So, going in without any prior knowledge, it would probably seem perfectly fair to assume that the film you are about to watch would turn out to be some violent and action-focused epic.

With that in mind, it's probably worth pointing out right from the start that this isn't really the sort of film that Sword of Desperation is. It would be more accurate to think of the film as a historical drama - a period piece which just happens to be based around Samurai. It is a slow-moving and thoughtful sort of film, really. The type of film that isn't afraid to linger on the quiet moments between its cast. The film's focus is kept entirely on its somber and stoic central protagonist - a man with a clearly troubled past. It is, in the end, really something of a reflection on that trait of absolute loyalty to one's lord which defines the classic image of a Samurai.

With all of that being said, though, the film does all lead toward a seemingly inevitable, and fantastically shot, action set-piece at its conclusion - one that is, really, everything that a fan could want. But, that single scene aside, the film's primary purpose is clearly to offer a faithful and accurate recreation of the life of a Samurai living on the Edo period of Japan.

Kanemi Sanzaemon (Etsushi Toyokawa) is the Samurai in question, here - a talented warrior whose life as been devoted to service to his lord. Following the death of his wife, Sanzaemon shares his home only with an elderly servant and his niece, Rio (Chizuru Ikewaki). Rio, it should be pointed out (because the film, itself, isn't as clear on this point as it probably needed to be), is actually his wife's niece, related to Sanzaemon only be marriage. Keeping this fact in mind might make the romantic relationship that gradually develops between them a little less uncomfortable to watch - though, the fact that she continuously refers to him as 'uncle' probably wont help.

Sanzaemon is every bit the loyal and faithful Samurai right up until the day that he publicly, and seemingly without reason or provocation, murders Lady Renko, his Lord's concubine. He clearly expects to be executed for his crime, and seems to be perfectly willing to accept this fate - but, he is caught be surprise when his lord, instead, chooses to sentence only with a year's confinement and a reduction of his income. Obviously confused, Sanzaemon still accepts this new sentence and, with Rio as his only permitted contact with the outside world, begins to serve his year in isolation - and, it is only at this point that we begin to see some of the events leading up to Sanzaemon's sudden, and brutal, crime revealed through flash-back. As he faithfully serves his sentence, though, Sanzaemon is once more caught by surprise when his crime is suddenly forgiven, and his finds himself reinstated to his old position.

There are two equally compelling mysteries that serve as the basis for this film. The first, obviously, it the question of why a seemingly loyal and devoted Samurai would suddenly, and openly, murder his lord's favourite concubine? It is the scene which opens the film, after all - and, the fact that Sanzaemon's only reaction after the act is a sort of resigned remorse as he gives himself up hints at some deeper reason. The second mystery is why he would be given such a lenient punishment - and, in particular, why his crime would ultimately be so easily forgiven? With even Sanzaemon, himself, obviously baffled by this turn of events, it seems clear that there are more secrets to uncover.

Obviously, there is quite a bit going on behind the scenes, here - with both mysteries proving to be intimately tied together in fascinating, and unexpected ways. And, the film does a wonderful job of gradually leading the audience through this process of revelation. This, alone, would probably be enough to make Sword of Desperation a worthwhile film - but, fortunately, it is far from the only positive that this film has. The film is effectively carried by a great performance from Etsushi Toyokawa, who does a remarkable job of bringing to life a character whose veneer of stoicism isn't quite able to hide the heavy toll his actions have taken on him - but, while it is definitely his film, the rest of the cast also play their own parts well. The costumes and set-design featured in the film all look suitably authentic - and, that sole action set-piece we are treated to at the film's conclusion is impressively tense.

The eventual revelations that will come be the film's end may turn out to be exactly what you suspected all along, or they may catch you by surprise - but, either way, it is this gradual process of discovery that will hold your attention. Sword of Desperation, ultimately, is a film which tells it tale in a fascinating way, and through the eyes of a complex and fascinating protagonist - and, it is a film which is definitely worth your time.

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