Thursday, June 16, 2011


Japanese cinema scored another global coup when Tadashi Imai's multi-generation chronicle won the Golden Bear award at the 1963 Berlin Film Festival, but for some reason the film hasn't really made it into the global canon of Japanese cinema. That may be because Imai himself remains an obscure figure outside Japan, despite the award. I hadn't really heard of him until I rented the AnimEigo DVD from the Albany Public Library. It may also be because Bushido brutally debunks the samurai legend that has captured the global imagination, in a more positive way, since the end of World War II. It's possible that Berlin may have honored the film less for its content than for its tour-de-force showcase of actor Kinnosuke Nakamura in seven different roles -- a feat that Shirley MacLaine would match with Vittorio de Sica's help a few years later.

Nakamura, whom I appreciate more the more I recognize him in movies, embodies seven generations of the Iizuka family, a dynasty of chumps. We first see him in a modern framing sequence as a Sixties salaryman rushing to a hospital after hearing of his fiancee's suicide attempt. Whatever's happened, he blames himself for it, and his ancestors as well. He's done some research on his family history and finds himself repeating a pathetic pattern.

From this point the film goes all the way back to the start of the Tokugawa period and marches forward across the generations as, again and again, the Iizuka of the era ruins his life, and usually the lives of his loved ones, out of misplaced loyalty -- loyalty being the essence of bushido -- to unworthy lords. In the first episode, Iizuka is a junior officer who commits suicide to prevent his general from being executed for a military blunder. In the next, the dead man's son commits a faux pas while urging food upon his dying, senile lord. Despite his disgrace, or because of it, he's all too eager to join other samurai in killing themselves so they can join their lord in death. In episode three, Iizuka is initially pleased to be inducted in his lord's inner circle, only to discover to his extreme chagrin that the lord's interest in him is purely carnal.

In the fourth and longest episode, Iizuka is a respected master swordsman, specializing in blindfolded strikes. His life is slowly taken apart as his superiors demand first his daughter (who loves another) and later his wife for sexual favors. The wife kills herself rather than go through with it, and Iizuka suffers disgrace for the inconvenience imposed on a superior person. He's promised reinstatement if he'll carry out a blindfolded execution. The deed done, he learns that he's decapitated his own daughter, who'd defied the system by trying to elope with her true love, now also dead. He approaches the platform where his lord presides, but is still too submissive, or perhaps just too grief-stricken, to carry out the revenge we might normally expect. Instead, the lord thrusts Iizuka's own sword through his hand. As our man painfully draws the weapon out, we might still think, "Now he's going to give the bastard what he deserves," but instead he just kills himself in horrendously abject fashion.

The pace picks up from here as we hurtle back toward the present. In episode five, set in the early Meiji period of modernization, Iizuka shelters a sick, probably senile old aristocrat who ends up raping our hero's girlfriend. A World War II vignette barely qualifies as an episode, since we get just a fleeting glimpse of airman Iizuka as a kamikaze pilot. That brings us back to the present as we learn modern-day Iizuka's sad story. It's a Romeo-Juliet sort of story, since Iizuka and his fiancee work for rival businesses. As usual, Iizuka's servile loyalty leads him to hurt those more deserving of it, as his boss pressures him into inducing his fiancee, an executive secretary, into perpetrating industrial espionage. But just as you're convinced that some things never change, our Sixties sap seems to wise up, renouncing his heritage of bootlicking, at least in theory, to marry the recovering girl in defiance of his bosses.

Bushido should be better known simply for Nakamura's performances. Aided by changing fashions and hairstyles, the actor works against the odds set by the determinist screenplay to make each Iizuka a distinct personality rather than the recurrence of a certain "type" throughout history. As for the film as a whole, its structure works against it somewhat. The longest and most dramatic episode sits at the center of the movie, making the last three stories (the WW2 bit especially) seem anticlimactic. Something like D. W. Griffith's Intolerance format might have worked better. Then Imai could have gone back and forth through time from story to story and saved the climax of the central story until closer to the close of the film. But while the whole suffers from imbalance, every frame of the film is sharply shot and Imai milks each episode for maximum emotional impact. That alone may drive people from the theater, since Imai's bushido is the ideology of a dystopian past, a time when the boot did come down on your face forever. While other Japanese films critiqued feudal society and culture while managing to uphold the individual samurai as a heroic ideal, Bushido denies audiences any such consolation. However fundamentally decent they may all have been, the Iizukas are all chumps, saps, dopes, dupes, idiots, suckers -- the overall effect is so monotonously oppressive that you're tempted to rebel or at least to suspect that Imai is stacking the historical deck. My hunch, however, is that he's closer to the historical truth than most samurai movies, simply because he rejects any audience-gratifying heroic reading of the era. Bushido isn't really as violent as the contemporary films from around the world that I identify with a "history of cruelty" genre, but in its own way it may be more depressing and demoralizing than nearly all of those films. In that, it achieves a kind of greatness that makes it worthy of wider recognition.

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