Had I seen Hirayama Hideyuki’s 2010 “Sword of Desperation” (Hisshiken torisashi) before seeing the triptych of Yoji Yamada adaptation of fiction by Fijisawa Shohei (“Twilight Samurai”, “Hidden Blade”, “Love and Honor”, each made earlier in this millennium than “Sword of Desperation”), I’m sure I would have been very enthusiastic. There is little that is new about “Sword of Desperation,” not least the perfidy of officials and the stoicness of the protagonist.
One novelty is that after a performance in the courtyard of a daimyo Lord Ukyo (Murakami Jun), his favored mistress, the very manipulative Renko (Seki Megum) is cut down by retainer samurai Sanzaemon (Toyokawa Etsushi). Sanzaemon expects to be executed or order to commit suicide, but is only locked up for a year (with his rice stipend cut), then is brought back by pragmatic chief retainer Minbu Tsuda (Kishibe Ittoku) to guard the daimyo, who is threatened by a more popular step brother, Lord Obiya (Kikkawa Koji),
“Sword of Desperation” could have used some of the sly humor Yamada’s Fijisawa late-Tokugawa samurai movies (or Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro“). It has a big Sanzaemon against a horde of lesser samurai fight that leads (at long last) to demonstration of the “sword of desperation” move. There is also an aim-inhibited romance between Sanzaemon and his niece-in-law Rio (Ikewaki Chizuru), whose fiancé rejected her.
Between the opening slaying and the closing, very protracted battle, the middle is sluggish, though filling in Sanzaemon’s character and the backstory of Renko’s interference in running the domain (into the ground for her family’s profit) that led to murdering a woman.
Ishii Kôichi’s cinematography is vivid early and late and in flashbacks, muted while Sanzaemon is under house arrest (spending his time whittling).
I thought that the familiar Kishibe Ittoku (13 Assasins, etc.) was especially good as the devious chief-of-staff.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray