Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honor

One of Japan's most revered actors, Toshiro Mifune stars in this historical samurai epic (jidaigeki). As the end of the 19th century nears, the balance of power shifts from the shogunate to the emperor. Kondo Isami (Mifune), a farmer turned warrior, leads the fierce Shinsengumi, a small army of ronin (masterless samurai). Isami and his men oppose the violent, roaming bands of ronin who are terrorizing Kyoto in the name of the emperor and against the foreigners. Together the Shinsengumi band together to wage battle against these ronin and the inevitable tides of change.

The Shinsengumi are very famous in Japan and there have been dozens of movies and television shows about them. They were the last shogun's last samurai police force assembled to fight the hordes of ronin terrorizing Kyoto. The ronin were masterless samurai who were roaming the streets of Kyoto creating terror and bloodshed in the name of restoring the emperor and throwing out the foreigners. The Shinsengumi are an interesting group to be so popular or even to be considered heroes. The reason is because not only were they on the losing side of the war and had very little or no impact on the political changes sweeping the country, but they were also a brutally violent and bloody police force.

Although there have been many films about the Shinsengumi, this one is worth seeing because Toshiro Mifune plays Kondo Isami, the most famous leader of the Shinsengumi. Isami was actually from a family of peasants but because of his superior skill as a swordsman he rose up to lead this samurai corps. One thing with this film though, if you have little or no understanding of the historical events of this time period, you will be completely lost and the film will have very little meaning. If you are familiar with the Shinsengumi and the Restoration period, then you will appreciate this film more. However, this movie is just OK, not a great film. For me, I think Mifune was too old to play Kondo Isami and the film bizarrely jumps into the story too abruptly. Aside from the narrators explanation of the historical events, there was no background about Isami. The movie just jumps quickly to important events such as the elimination of Isami's rival Serizawa, a violent and alcoholic leader of another faction in the Shinsengumi.

If you like Toshiro Mifune or samurai time-period movies, then this is still a good movie to see. Just not the best. There was one sad scene where a Shinsengumi member was ordered to commit seppuku and he had his head cut off. I was intrigued by how they filmed the scene as they showed the head falling off the body so I did an extremely slow-motion replay of the scene. You could see the actor swing his blade and that it missed the other actor by a good six or seven inches but then the head slowing falling off. Very interesting. One aspect of samurai movies I find a little silly is the funny sounding slashing noise they make when someone is being slashed by the sword. It is the same sound you'll find not just in low budget chanbara flicks but in higher quality films as well. It's comparable to the loud goofy sound we all hear in western movies when someone is getting punched in the face.

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