Sunday, July 10, 2011

Japan Cuts ’11: The Last Ronin

Terasaka Kichiemon is the 47th Ronin—as in the legendary 47 Ronin. In a departure from traditional Chūshingura story, Kichiemon was instructed not to commit seppuku with the rest of 47, but to live like a character from Shakespearean tragedy to tell the tale to the Ronin’s far-flung surviving family. Senoo Magozaemon was supposed to be the 48th. When Kichiemon spies the presumed deserter it sets in motion events that will reveal the final secrets of the feudal epic in Shigemichi Sugita’s The Last Ronin (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 Japan Cuts New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema now underway at the Japan Society.

In a nutshell, Lord Ako was manipulated into disgracing himself at court by his duplicitous rival, Kira. With his seppuku, his samurai became masterless ronin. However, they remained faithful to their late lord, methodically planning a daring raid on Kira’s castle, culminating in his execution and their honorable suicide. According to Shoichiro Ikemiya’s source novel, Magoza as he is now known, absconded the night before the attack, for reasons hitherto unknown.

Shortly thereafter, Magoza turned up in a provincial mountain village with a small infant girl bundled up against the freezing snow. For the next sixteen years, Magoza informally co-parents Kane with the retired courtesan Mistress Yu. However, the arrangement leads to ambiguous feelings which will become significant as she comes of age. As in any Ozu film, Magoza worries about marrying off Kane to a suitable suitor. She has other ideas. With Kichiemon poking around and their fallen comrades’ significant seventeen year memorial fast-approaching, the truth is bound to come out.

In many ways, Last Ronin might sound like a Chūshingura sequel, as envisioned by the masterful Ozu. Indeed, it is rather surprising how little happens, despite the one hundred thirty two minute running time. Yet, unlike the thematically similar Sword of Desperation, Sugita’s aesthetic values lean more towards the melodramatic than the ascetic. Yet, swords only cross briefly in Last, aside from the early flashback to the fateful day of vengeance.

Kôji Yakusho, so awesome in Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, wrings every drop of tortured dignity from Magoza’s fretted brow. Yet, he keeps the tragically tragic hero sufficiently grounded to hold viewer sympathy. Narumi Yasuda is also wonderfully seductive in an earthy honest way as Miss Yu. If Nanami Sakuraba is really sixteen, than I must be a youthful twenty-one, but given the talk of Kane’s marriage and such, her more mature look is rather comforting. She also movingly conveys an innocent vulnerability as Magoza’s young but eligible ward.

Given Sugita’s approach, Last might have befitted from a somewhat brisker pace. However, it takes honor refreshingly seriously and fully recognizes the complexity of human emotion. Though cynics might call it manipulative, it also builds to quite a swelling crescendo of a payoff. Recommended for unabashed romantics, Last screens this Tuesday (7/12), as does Sword of Desperation, with which it would make a good cinematic pairing during the 2011 Japan Cuts at the Japan Society.