Japan Cuts 2011: SWORD OF DESPERATION Review

If you're a fan of chanbara dramas--those sensitive, occasionally weepy samurai films that pop up every year or so--then you've probably already seen director Hideyuki Hirayama' Sword of Desperation. Well, if not the actual film, then some configuration of it in this subgenre populated with reluctant, but expert swordsmen, unrequited love, and feudal intrigues that threaten to destroy the salt-of-the-Earth poor and the noble middle class. I won't knock Sword of Desperation for over-familiarity--it's a genre that done well, I love and when done expertly, I'll allow to break my heart a little bit. I think Yôji Yamada's Twilight Samurai is the peak of the form. And now that I'm starting to talk about other films, I realize that I should really say something about Sword of Desperation which deserves some comment, if not too much.

Here, the expert swordsman is Kanemi Sanzaemon (Etsushi Toyokawa), a samurai who, for reasons that are slowly revealed through flashback, murders Lady Renko, the concubine of Lord Ukyo. He gives no reason for it and even seems to regret the action as he plunges the knife into the pretty young woman. Instead of being executed, Sanzaemon is put on house arrest for a year, stripped of a portion of his stipend and forced to rely on the kindness of his niece by marriage, Rio (Chizuru Ikewaki) for his care and feeding during his incarceration. As the story progresses, we find out that his lax punishment is one wheel turning within many other wheels as wicked men seek to insulate themselves from justice.

With the exception of the frequent flashbacks, I didn't find a lot new being said or done by Sword of Desperation. That's not to say I don't think it didn't hit all of the sweet spots of a movie of this type: Sanzaemon is perfectly stoic and brave in equal measure, Rio is loving and strong-willed as a character is called to be, and the scheming nobility is appropriately jeer-worthy in their machinations and duplicity. Even the title is part of the formula, speaking to some skill or ability of the protagonist (in this case, it's a dueling technique that you can bet will appear before the final frame). I have absolutely nothing to fault the movie with, but I should note that only a few days after seeing it, the experience is starting to bleed into other movies of its type.

I refuse to end this review saying Sword of Desperation was an unmemorable movie--it wasn't that. It was just very familiar. Sometimes that's a virtue in itself, though.

Sword of Desperation is screening on July 12th as part of Japan Cuts 2011. For more information, check out the Japan Society site.

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