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February 09, 2010

Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai

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Bushido zankoku monogatari
Tadashi Imai - 1963
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

The title might suggest an action film full of sword fighting. That is not the case here. Bushido might more appropriately be called an anti-Samurai film. This is both in the subject and the telling of the story. Much of the action is off screen, and when swords are involved, more often it involves ritual suicide. Tadashi Imai's film is primarily a critique of the samurai code, with the implication that the same attitudes have remained in contemporary times. Additionally, the code of loyalty, whether to a lord, a country, or an employer, sets the stage for personal disaster.

Kinnosuke Nakamura portrays several generations of men in the Iikura family, from the beginning of the 17th Century through 1963. The current descendent of the family reflects on how his own actions may have destroyed his fiancee, and how he has acted in way that is similar to that of his ancestors. The film is also about the ebb and flow of fortunes of a family that is of samurai class, until nothing is left but the belief in a hierarchy that consistently proves itself unworthy of the respect demanded of others. When the Iikura men act in the name of loyalty and obedience, they set themselves up in a trap that inevitably destroys themselves and others.

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The sequence that may cause a few eyebrows to be raised now, as it probably did back in 1963, involves homosexuality. The first glimpse is a scene of three men dancing for Lord Tambanokami Munemasa Hori. The lord then meets with a group of young students. One of the young men catches his eye. The student, Kyuraro Iikura, is invited to serve as the lord's page, but suspicions are confirmed when when of the women preparing young Iikura mentions "pretty boys" and tells the nervous young man that he is wanted in the bedroom. This scene is replayed in a sequence that follows. when wife of another generation's Iikura is beckoned to the bedroom by the descendant of Lord Hori. For Imai, the ruling classes indulge in decadence that has no sense of propriety, living out the famous saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

It would be interesting to have read reviews of Bushido from when it was initially released. A contemporary of Akira Kurosawa's, Tadashi Imai is virtually unknown except for the most devoted of scholars of Japanese cinema. The film won the Golden Bear at the 1963 Berlin Film Festival, where the competition included Ralph Nelson's Lilies of the Field and Clive Donner's The Caretaker, and the judges included Jean-Pierre Melville and Karl Malden. The sex and violence that make up much of the story are mostly suggested, perhaps because Imai isn't interested in what would be the most exploitable aspects to his story, as much as the causes and effects of said actions. Even without any explicitness, Imai has a way of shocking the viewer simply by tossing aside any preconceptions regarding a bygone era. For Imai, the way of the the samurai has no love and honor, only regret and shame.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 9, 2010 12:11 AM