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March 7, 2011

Movie Review: Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai (1963, AnimEigo)

Tadashi Imai was a Japanese director who, throughout his long career, alternated between lyrical historical dramas and preachy Marxist polemical essays. His work is not quite as well known in the West as Ozu or Kurosawa or the small handful of other great Japanese directors; possibly because of his unpopular political stance. At his best, however, he was capable of a lyrical beauty that at times rivaled the masters.

AnimEigo is now offering a crisp, beautiful transfer of his 1963 classic BUSHIDO ZANKOKU MONOGATARI, or BUSHIDO, THE CRUEL CODE OF THE SAMARAI. It is an episodic drama of a family, spanning 350 years, which attempts to straddle both schools of Imai’s output: historical drama and political “message” movie. As a result it displays the director’s greatest strengths and weaknesses in one fascinating package.
Kinnosuke Nakamura plays a business man in modern Japan who, at the open, rushes to the hospital to be with his fiancée who has attempted suicide. It is implied that he did something which jeopardized their relationship, predicating the attempt on her own life. This causes him to go back in memory to his family history, recognizing a long precedent of adherence to Bushido, the code of the Samurai; ie, a blind loyalty to a feudal master.

What follows is seven segments of varying length showing different ancestors, all played by Nakamura, each faced with the same dilemma: a choice between loyalty to a master, or loyalty to themselves or their family.
The first segment depicts a samurai who commits ritual suicide out of loyalty when his Lord dies of an illness.

The second tells of a student, who is fancied by a Lord who has a taste for young men. He is castrated when he falls in love with and impregnates another servant.
The third, and best segment, is about a samurai loyal to a particularly sadistic Lord who demands the samurai deliver his daughter to him as a gift. Next he demands the samuria’s wife. The cruel Lord systematically destroys his entire family. The samurai is tested so severely that it is hard to imagine him not taking a stand at some point before the grim and powerful conclusion. But that of course is the point, and what makes this such a uniquely Japanese film. In a Western film, it would have taken a turn into revenge drama, and been robbed of its devastating emotional effect.
The following segments are more of the same, and by then the premise has worn a bit thin. We already know where it is going, and none of what follows comes close to the power of the segments previously described.
The final historical segment is the shortest, and involves the narrator’s older brother, a Kamikaze pilot, taking a toast to the emperor before flying off on his suicide mission.
At this point we return to the present where the new feudal Lord is the corporate world of cutthroat competition; where loyalty to the employer is not only encouraged, but expected. The narrator and his fiancée work for rival engineering companies, forcing them to choose loyalties. Here the narrator stands at a crossroad where he can clearly see the devastation Bushido has caused in his ancestry. He must decide to continue the legacy or take a stand and break the chain.
Imai has a masterful control of his medium. Every shot is just right, and the pacing is impeccable throughout. The crisp photography is evocative and beautiful, and the performances all are right on the money. However, the structure here is far too obvious and repetitive. He basically tells the same story over and over again, and it does become tiresome. However, anybody with even a passing interest in serious Japanese cinema should give it a careful look. Its preachy polemics may be soon forgotten, but its poetic beauty will stay with you for a long, long time.

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