Saturday, July 09, 2011

Japan Cuts ’11: Sword of Desperation

Speed and strength are all well and good, but a true warrior understands the lethal potential of patience and timing. Kanemi Sanzaemon is such a warrior, but his Bushido Code will take a bit of a bruising in Hideyuki Hirayama’s quiet but violent Sword of Desperation (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 Japan Cuts New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema now underway at the Japan Society.

Killing an unarmed woman might be hard to reconcile with any concept of honor, but Sanzaemon had his reasons. Abusing her influence as Lord Ukyo’s favored concubine, Lady Renko devastated the domain’s peasantry and drove many good men to “open their stomachs.” In short, she had it coming. As a childless widower, Sanzaemon did not have much to lose. However, his late wife’s niece Rio stands by the disgraced swordsman during his unexpectedly lenient one year incarceration.

Ukyo’s crafty councilor Tsuda intervenes not just to spare Sanzaemon’s life, but to restore his rank and position in service to the lord. As the rumored innovator of the “desperation thrust,” Tsuda believes Sanzaemon’s services will be needed with respects to Lord Obiya, a feared warrior growing increasingly restive under his cousin Ukyo’s profligate rule. However, the rumored thrust can only be used when the swordsman is “as good as dead.” Of course, this can be arranged, no problem.

Desperation is a potent if unlikely combination of the quietly intimate Ozu aesthetic with some brutal hank-and-slash action, sprinkling in a veiled critique of Keynesian economics for good measure. Demanding a long abandoned temple be rebuilt as a vanity (stimulus) project, Renko insists the domain will benefit from the temporary jobs and increased demand for building supplies. “That makes no sense at all,” Obiya replies, fretting over the depleted treasury. He will be a problem, alright.

As Sanzaemon, Etsushi Toyokawa radiates tangible world weary gravitas and stone cold badness. A memorable bushido anti-hero, he also develops a finely wrought chemistry with Chizuru Ikewaki as the vulnerable but resilient Rio. Conversely, it is easy to see how Megumi Seki’s icily erotic Lady Renko brings out the worst in men.

Hirayama’s deliberately contemplative pace heightens the tragedy as it unfolds. Indeed, Desperation is a vividly effective exercise in cinematic tension and release. Art director Katsumi Nakazawa’s design team renders the Edo period with austere elegance, while cinematographer mostly gives it a gauzy look, but makes sure when the blood starts to flow, the deep crimson red pops vibrantly off the screen.

Desperation is deeply rooted in Jidaigeki archetypes. In many respects, the character of Kanemi Sanzaemon is closely akin to Shinzaemon Shimada, the a-man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do samurai protagonist of Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins. Yet, Desperation is a film that treasures its quiet moments. A samurai honor-and-revenge epic worthy of serious cineaste attention as well as genre fan love, it is highly recommended when it screens this Tuesday (7/12), as the 2011 Japan Cuts continues at the Japan Society.