Monday, April 14, 2014

Film Review: When The Last Sword Is Drawn (2003)

When The Last Sword Is Drawn (Review)
Japan/2003
Format Viewed For Review: Netflix Instant
Netflix Streaming: Yes
Amazon Prime: Yes

"...leading to a more effective drama."

Late one night, Saitō Hajime (Kōichi Satō) brings his ill grandson to a doctor. When he finds a picture of an old adversary, Saitō begins to reminisce...

When The Last Sword Is Drawn is a story told mainly in flashbacks, particularly set during the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate. Saitō Hajime is a traditional but heartless samurai, while his eventual rival, of sorts, Yoshimura Kanichiro (Kiichi Nakai) is a money-grubbing but emotional and loyal samurai. Yoshimura joins the notorious Shinsengumi clan in order to support his starving family, which explains his money-grubbing personality. But, he still earns respect as a loyal and honorable samurai, and Yoshimura also begins to extend his character onto others. As the pair rise through several conflicts, eventually they face their greatest challenge as the Shogun falls and the Emperor rises. The ending is powerful and very well executed; a bittersweet ending.

Despite a few well choreographed action sequences, When The Last Sword Is Drawn is better defined as a drama and character study. The characters are complex and well developed, leading to a more effective drama. Yoshimura and Saitō are completely different characters and they clash often, but they end up being more alike than expected -- and not in a cheesy or predictable way. I also liked the focus on honor, loyalty, family, and sacrifice. The themes, despite the setting, are relevant and relatable today. And, the few action sequences in this film are well-executed, feeling very authentic and believable. I didn't think it was absolutely perfect, though. The storytelling can be occasionally convoluted. Sometimes it felt like there were flashbacks within flashbacks, which never really sits right with me. I think you can be especially confused if you're not familiar with the setting. I wasn't dumbfounded, but I'd be lying if i said it was user-friendly.

Kiichi Nakai delivers a wonderful performance -- very versatile, often humorous, occasionally emotional. Kōichi Satō also does well as the heartless samurai -- not overplayed, hitting the character just right. I wasn't familiar with most of the cast, but they hit the mark perfectly. The music from Joe Hisaishi is superb -- the score adds to every emotion in the film, whether somber or epic, and everything in between. The cinematography is also fantastic, the film looks beautiful, especially during the snow scenes. The set and costume designs are also beautiful and authentic. Director Yōjirō Takita crafts a wonderful character study, but the film suffers from some minor storytelling flaws.

Overall, When The Last Sword Is Drawn is a great samurai character study. I thoroughly enjoyed this approach and felt it amplified the emotion; it really made the final act much more memorable and effective. However, the amount of story it wants to tell can be overwhelming and the storytelling is somewhat detrimental to the experience. Regardless, it's a film worth watching.

Score: 8/10
Parental Guide: Some string violence and blood, some gore.

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