Wednesday, June 27, 2018

NYAFF ’18: Sekigahara

It was the big battle the events in James Clavell’s Shogun were leading up to, but this time we do not see them through the eyes of Richard Chamberlain. In 1600 (a nice round year), the Eastern Army commanded by Ieyasu Tokugawa (Toshiro Mifune in Shogun) clashed with the Western Army led by Ishida Mitsunari. The Eastern Army had greater numbers, but the battle still could have gone either way, at least according to the semi-fictionalized chronicle in Masato Harada’s Sekigahara (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Mitsunari is loyal to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the great unifying daimyo, even though he chafes under some of the lord’s harsher decisions. When Hideyoshi dies, Mitsunari is determined to preserve his heir’s succession and to institute a more just and humane administration. Tokugawa is less idealistic and more Machiavellian. There is also bad blood between the two samurais.

Initially, Tokugawa holds all the institutional advantages, but Mitsunari scores several coups when it comes to recruiting allies. He sways the legendary leprosy-afflicted samurai Yoshitsugu Ōtani to his side, appoints the physically scarred and battle-tested Sakon Shima as his commander, and accepts the services of stealthy Iga Ninja Hatsume. During the course of her service, Hatsume and her lord will fall in love, but they can never consummate their feelings, due to political considerations.

As you would hope and expect, Sekigahara is jam-packed with tragically epic battle sequences. This is a satisfyingly big film, which might be why the small, quiet subplot involving Mitsunari and Hatsume is so potently poignant. As the two non-lovers, Junichi Okada and Kasumi Arimura do not have a lot of screen time together, but they still develop some lovely chemistry.

In fact, Okada brings Shakespearean dimensions to Mitsunari. When he is arrogant, it will make you wince—and when he is humble, it is downright heroic. The always reliable Koji Yakusho shows he still has a few tricks up his sleeve as the scheming Tokugawa, while Takehiro Hira is spectacularly grizzled and hard-nosed as the serious-as-a-heart-attack Shima.

Sekigahara is exactly the sort of film that made many cineastes fall in love with Japanese cinema in the first place. Harada commandingly manages the numerous battlefield reversals and nicely balances all the complex elements (arguably, two-and-a-half-hours is pretty tight for this genre). It is an elegant work of big screen craftsmanship, but it absolutely takes no prisoners. It is all quite sad, yet still a great deal of fun. Very highly recommended, Sekigahara screens this Friday (6/30) at the Walter Reade, where Harada will receive NYAFF’s Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award (his past festival selections include Chronicle of My Mother, Climber’s High, and Shadow Spirit).