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February 07, 2012

Sword of Desperation

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Hisshiken torisashi
Hideyuki Hirayama - 2010
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

It should be noted that the literary source of Sword of Desperation is a novel by Shuhei Fujisawa. The author also provided the source material for Yoji Yamada's samurai trilogy. There are some thematic similarities here, but it helps to understand that in spite of the title, Sword of Desperation is not an action movie, although there is much sword fighting at the end of the film. Instead, Hideyuki Hirayama, like Yamada, has chosen to contemplate on what it means to be a samurai.

The climactic set piece near the end of the film has a bit more gushing blood, with sprays of red along white walls. Otherwise, Hirayama's film looks like it could have been made with little variation about fifty years ago. Unlike Takashi Miiike's version of 13 Assassins which includes elements that could not have been used in the original version, Hirayama's film might be described as neo-classical in its execution. I would place Sword of Desperation closer in spirit to something like the 1962 or earlier versions of Chushingura (The 47 Ronin), but on a more intimate scale.

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Taking place in the Edo period, the film opens with a vassal, Kanemi, murdering the favored concubine, Renko, of the lord he serves. Fully expecting to be beheaded, Kanemi is instead put under house arrest for a year, after which he is asked to serve as chief bodyguard for the lord, Ukyo. Though never stated, a series of flashbacks partially reveal why Kanemi killed Renko. The bigger mystery, based on the protocol of the times, is why Kanemi is allowed not only to live, but to live in relative comfort, even as he shuts himself away from everyone.

In the first scene, a Noh performance is being observed by members of the feudal household. The basic themes are introduced regarding the manipulation of nature and appearances. It is Kanemi, and the niece by marriage who loves him unreservedly, who act in ways true to themselves, and are undisguised to others. Throughout the film, Hirayama devotes time to shots of clouds, the passing of time through the seasons, birds in flight, and snow melting into a river. A sunny close up of a spider web may hint at things to come, but it is benign in comparison the web of intrigue in the lord's mansion.

The title takes on a double meaning, but originally is Kanemi's term for a sword fighting technique he's developed. In the Noh play, dogs are hunted as a means to train to hunt for foxes. Kanemi uses a subtle, quick move of the wrist to snatch birds off trees with a long stick as an exercise that is used also in sword fighting. Kanemi's sense of loyalty and his ability as a master swordsman are also what trap him like the little bird we see in an earlier scene. Up until the end, Sword of Desperation is a muted, period drama where the patience of watching an elaborate scheme unfold pay off for the viewer, if not the film's characters.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 7, 2012 08:56 AM