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Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2003

For my enemy is also my hero

Mibu Gishi Den

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Yojiro Takita
Running time: 137 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

The Meiji Restoration, I learned in my Japanese history class, was basically a Good Thing. Sure, the Meiji government had wrong-headed ideas about Buddhists, Koreans and others outside their elite all-male circle, but they also cleared away 2 1/2 centuries of feudal cobwebs, opened the nation to the outside world and saved it from Western colonialism.

News photo
Kiichi Nakai and Momo Nakayama in "Mibu Gishi Den"

Why, I later wondered, were the popular heroes of the period, such as soldier-statesman Saigo Takamori and the shinsengumi (a fabled corps of samurai who defended Kyoto in the name of the shogunate), so often on the anti-Restoration side?

Probably for much the same reason that, after the American Civil War, victorious Unionists praised the Confederate generals "Stonewall" Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Even though they fought for a misguided cause, they were worthy opponents and admirable men. Also, as Ivan Morris noted in "The Nobility of Failure," the Japanese love the losers of history more than the winners -- especially if their struggle was hopeless to begin with.

Yojiro Takita's "Mibu Gishi Den (When the Last Sword Is Drawn)" plays straight to this traditional preference. Based on a story by Jiro Asada, the film is set in the turbulent last days of the Edo Period. Its hero, Kanichiro Yoshimura (Kiichi Nakai), is a new member of the shinsengumi.

Far from being a heroic warrior, however, Kanichiro is something of a bumpkin and buffoon. He loudly boasts about his home province -- today's Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture -- and freely admits he is in the shinsengumi for the zeni (money). To one of his seniors, the stern-minded Saito (Koichi Sato), he is a disgrace. A samurai was supposed to disdain the emotionalism and money-grubbing of the lower orders. He would, the saying went, rather chew a toothpick and pretend to have a full belly than confess to hunger.

Saito is so disgusted with Kanichiro's behavior that he picks a fight with him shortly after their first meeting. This clown, however, turns out to be a skilled swordsman who fends off Saito's attack, while refusing his invitation to combat. "I cannot afford to die!" he explains. The reason: He must support his family back home, which is living in dire poverty. Honor is a luxury he cannot afford.

The story arc seems obvious: After comic misunderstandings and shared adventures, the two men overcome their differences and become buddies in the finest Hollywood tradition.

But it's not quite. Or at least not so simply.

The script, by Takehiro Nakajima, is mainly true to the chaos of the period, including the way today's friend could became tomorrow's foe and how shifting political sands could bring down the unwary. But the many plot twists cannot disguise the film's melodramatic underpinnings. Instead of a feel-good ending, "Mibu Gishi Den" opts for conventional Japanesque pathos. Kanichiro's dilemma may speak to audiences in these recessionary times, when all postwar values are being re-evaluated, but his fate is out of an old kodan (historical narrative), with its sighs for the sadness of it all.

Despite his difficulties with Saito, Kanichiro is a good-natured sort whose scrambling for every loose koban (gold coin) is regarded with amusement by most of his shinsengumi colleagues. The shinsengumi itself, however, is riven by inner discord and under intense pressure from its enemies, who want to depose the shogun and elevate the emperor.

Then a shinsengumi faction allies itself with the Satsuma Clan, who is on the Imperial side. When Kanichiro and Saito are invited to join this group, Saito accepts -- but serves as a spy for the shinsengumi. Kanichiro, however, refuses -- he is willing to stain his honor for cash, but this is a line he cannot cross.

He does agree to pass on information received from Saito via Saito's lover, Nui (Miki Nakatani). He also tries to protect her when Saito's spying puts them both in danger. Although he fails, he earns Saito's reluctant gratitude. Then Saito returns to the shinsengumi and joins it in its battle for survival -- a battle that becomes increasingly desperate as leaders die and the Imperial forces gain strength. Finally, remnants of the shinsengumi launch themselves into a final battle at Toba -- and Kanichiro proves his valor at last.

Saito, miraculously, survives and decades later has an encounter that stirs memories of his one-time enemy and friend.

"Mibu Gishi Den" is, in both its hero and theme, similar to Yoji Yamada's "Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)" -- a film that is sweeping domestic prizes and has been selected for competition at the Berlin Film Festival. But "Tasogare Seibei" is a character-driven film that strives for realism instead of recycling standard genre tropes, whereas "Mibu Gishi Den" is a TV drama writ large that tries to cram as much incident as possible into its 137-minute running time.

Once known as a comedy specialist ("Kimurake no Hitobito"), Yojiro Takita has since become an in-demand director of mainstream films, including last year's fantasy hit "Onmyoji (The Ying-Yang Master)." He has made "Mibu Gishi Den" sprightlier, sharper and grittier than it might have been otherwise, but short of a complete rewrite, he couldn't have excised the sentimentalism implicit in nearly every scene.

Nakai has found the right take on Kanichiro -- pure-hearted but not stupid, grasping but not craven, with enough steel in his spine to make him more than a figure of whimsy.

As Saito, however, Sato spends much of the film in a bad mood, his dislike for Kanichiro inexplicably intense. In the film's framing scenes, he is shown as an old man, softened by the years, but it's hard to summon up much affection for him. He's the samurai as gruff, humorless tough guy. Then again, if he were a more tolerant type, the plot's opposites-repel motor would soon run out of gas.

"Mibu Gishi Den" might have been better if that motor were smaller. The character of Kanichiro, with his stubborn love for all that his world denies, is engine enough.

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