Film Review: Bushi no Ichibun / Love and Honor (2006)
Still Life, Samurai-Style
by Ender’s Girl
Kimura Takuya, Dan Rei, Bando Mitsugoro, Sasano Takashi, Kobayashi Nenji, Momoi Kaori, Ogata Ken
Co-written and directed by Yamada Yoji / Shochiku Eiga, 2006
In a Nutshell:
Samurai Mimura Shinnojo and his wife Kayo find their comfortable life in disarray after a taste-testing session gone awry leaves Mimura blind — and unemployed. But as the two face an uncertain future in Tokugawa Japan, their relationship takes a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse.
(SpoilLert: Everything major! Proceed at your own risk!!!)
Hmmm… Well… <how do I say this?> I think I came into this movie expecting two hours of unabated swordplay and bloodshed. What I didn’t expect was a domestic drama with just 9 minutes of kendo training and one short duel near the end. I told my best friend about it and she replied (having also seen the film), “That’s exactly what Yamada Yoji is known for in Japan, his movies (Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade) are very slice of life. He doesn’t glamorize the samurai but shows them as real, ordinary folk.”
Maybe I’m still not a sophisticated enough viewer (and jidaegeki connoisseur) to appreciate the deglamorized, quieter side of the warrior class in feudal Japan. Maybe I’ll always be THAT kind of viewer, the one that pops a chanbara movie into their DVD player and beats their chest, bellowing, “I want my savagery and gore! I want my katana blades gleaming crimson with blood! I want my epic duels to the death! I want my spewed guts and decapitated corpses littering the wayside! For love, for daimyo, for courage, for honor!” Hahaha. Believe me, if I had wanted to see a bunch of samurai sitting around all day and talking about the weather or how many kokus of rice they were getting that year, I would have watched a frikkin’ History Channel documentary instead, durrr.
Oh, all right, whatever, so maybe being a samurai isn’t ALL about killing people, lol. *roll eyes* Fine, I get that now, this film is supposed to depict the mundanity of life, even for this elite military caste. (And besides, if I had gotten my way, the producers would’ve had to change the movie’s title from Love and Honor, to Blood and Horror, heh heh.) But — oh, what a dull and senseless existence, to live and die by your liege lord’s leave. Still, you have to appreciate the stateliness and formality with which these samurai would conduct their affairs. There’s an austere beauty to this ancient culture that is even mirrored in the clean lines (and eco-friendly building materials, heh) of their abodes. But their feudal tradition is a two-edged sword, and as an observer of that time you do not fail to notice how a lot of it is just empty (though very elaborate) ritual, dictated by a social order so crushingly confining.
But the plot still seemed a little too thin for me, and the rising action was just too… slow… I wish the movie had shown more of that daily reality just to prove that their everyday struggles could still be interesting — with or without the bloodshed. And the film sure could have benefited from a little more complexity. I felt the story had such a narrow, tunnel-vision focus on Mimura and Kayo’s domestic ordeal, that watching the movie the first time left me strangely underwhelmed and even somewhat dissatisfied. The editing was also too… static for my taste. Maybe the story and overall treatment would have been more appropriate to a stage play, not a film. Bushi no Ichibun may have been adapted from a Fujisawa Shuhei novel, but with a story so sparse, the source material may well have been a frikkin’ HAIKU, hyukhyukhyuk.
And so I give you:
Love & Honor: The Haiku
Don’t eat the shellfish!
Too late, Samurai’s gone blind!
How will he live now?
Be brave, Samurai!
Neurotoxins ate your brain,
But your wife loves you!
She’ll do anything,
Even if it all leads to…
Betrayal and lies!
Will their love survive?
Oh no, Samurai found out!
Wifey is banished!
To defend Wifey’s honor!
Can a blind guy win?
Oh yes! He defeats
That Dirty Old Samurai!
And takes Wifey back!
Now they are happy!
He can eat nice food again.
(But no more shellfish!)
So, with that knee-jerk reaction out of the way, I must say that Bushi no Ichibun is a film that merits a second viewing — and even a third, or a fourth. If (like moi) you watched but didn’t love it at first, I guarantee that your appreciation for this film can only increase with time. (But if you already enjoyed it from the start, then congratulations, you officially have Good Taste, and can understand the Finer Qualities of Real Filmmaking, lol.) But it’s a strange, sealed-off world that these daimyo and their samurai inhabit, where life is reduced to this uncompromising, almost religious devotion to the bushido ideals. Everything else — your family, your personal hopes and dreams, even your own life — comes a distant second. And perhaps to echo this zeitgeist of feudal Japan, Bushi no Ichibun has a very insular feel to it, and the story builds upon many quiet but inwardly seething moments that leap out and grip you when you least expect it.
The film also comes stocked with memorable characters: for one, Momoi Kaori as Shinnojo’s auntie brings a riotous flurry of melodramatics to the Mimura household. She’s a pushy, ambitious busybody who reminds us of a certain relative we might have, the one we wish we saw as little of as possible. Momoi Kaori has but three short scenes in the entire film, but she gleefully grabs your attention each time.
Even more memorable is the Mimura family’s faithful old retainer Tokuhei (Sasano Takashi), who provides most of the film’s comic relief. Tokuhei actually is the perfect servant: industrious, trustworthy, biddable, and ever mindful of (though quite content with) his low-born status. What makes his character even funnier is his utter seriousness (and even slavishness) towards his work; the joke is often on him, although he does not seem to “get” it. One such time is shown early in the film, when Mimura is walking by the river and stops to joke around with the village kids. Tokuhei stiffly reminds Mimura that such conduct is unbecoming of someone of his rank, to which Mimura nonchalantly answers, “Oh shut up, you old fart.” (LMAO!!!) One of the lighter moments later in the story is when a visibly relieved Mimura, having just received word that his stipend from the castle will not be terminated after all, teases Tokuhei about wanting to kill him. As expected, the lovable geezer rises to the bait, and as he leads Mimura to the outhouse he is so caught up in protesting his irreproachability that he forgets to warn Mimura of a bamboo pole strung across the garden. Mimura walks smack into it, then dryly remarks that Tokuhei does want to kill him after all. (LMAO!!!) I really enjoyed these little slice-of-life scenes.
But Tokuhei’s devotion goes beyond what is required of him — for he is practically family, having known both Mimura and Kayo since they were children. All he really wants is to serve his master and mistress well, and when their domestic tribulation starts to unfold before his eyes — first Mimura’s blindness, then Kayo’s infidelity and the couple’s separation — you can literally see his little servant heart breaking in two. It’s touching how he tries in his own small way to arrange their reconciliation, and even risks Mimura’s ire by showing uncharacteristic gumption at the story’s close.
And what about KimuTaku? Kimura gives an outstanding performance as Mimura Shinnojo, undeniably one of his best in drama or film. Mimura in a way typifies what the younger, mid-ranking members of the military caste must have been like in feudal Japan: earning something like 30 kokus of rice a year to perform the mind-blowing, unbelievably thrilling task of taste-testing their overlord’s dishes, day in and day out. For this service, junior samurai such as Mimura are not even accorded the honor of sitting in their daimyo’s presence at mealtime. From the opening scene of the film it is evident that Mimura already feels disaffected by his status and occupation, and even confides to his wife that he finds his job “nothing but empty form… complete foolishness, pointless.” If that’s all there is to being a samurai in peacetime, Tokugawa-era Japan, then maybe Mimura is better off teaching kendo to the village kids. At least then, he’d be doing something that mattered to him. So Mimura half-seriously mulls opening a dojo — one where all are welcome to train regardless of social class, and where corporal punishment is a no-no (are you listening, Japan?????).
But despite his disenchantment with his occupation (and with the rigid feudal hierarchy of his airtight world), Mimura remains impeccably professional — the perfect samurai through and through. And so when he loses his eyesight to a poisonous little gastropod (aieeee! it’s the red tsubagai!!! run away!!! run away!!!), he understands (as do you) that such risks come with the job… but still, it’s tough for him to even try to make sense of it all. I was waiting for that moment when Mimura realizes, “Oh sh*t, I’m BLIND.” And Kimura does not disappoint in this scene. When he lies there and waves his hand across his face, you know the instant it hits Mimura: his body goes still for a heartbeat, then his arm limply falls to his side. And those empty eyes, staring at nothing. Oh, Mimura.
A short but funny insert scene at the castle shows the other samurai taste-testers clucking over Mimura’s misfortune — while inwardly feeling relieved that it didn’t happen to them. Tough luck — but that’s life. One of the samurai, this old fogey, remarks to his colleagues, “It’s not like he can become a masseur or a blind singer.” Lol. But — so true. There’s another scene where Kayo visits Mimura’s supercilious relations, who hem and haw over the young couple’s precarious financial footing until Kayo reluctantly brings up her recent encounter with Lord Shimada (Bando Mitsugoro), the castle’s Chief Duty Officer who has offered to put in a good word for Mimura over at Management (no, Kayo!!!!! don’t do it, Kayo!!!).
And so the relatives badger Kayo into accepting Shimada’s help, only too happy to get this inconvenience off their hands. But such is the reality of that time, of that world: there is no social welfare, no soup kitchens, no state-sponsored employment programs for the jobless. Compounding things is the warrior caste’s rigid view of honor (and dishonor), which vastly limits the work opportunities available to Mimura outside his samurai calling. Even Kayo, who broaches the possibility of finding work at the village tavern, is promptly shot down by the relatives because of the dishonor (whatever that means) it would bring their clan. It’s a cruel (samurai) world out there, leaving Mimura and his young wife grasping at straws.
And did I say that Kimura was outstanding in this film? Lol. You really feel Mimura’s rankling despondency and bitterness at his situation, and later, the grief over Kayo’s betrayal — all festering inside of him, like a wound that won’t heal. Throughout the film, his sightless eyes were pools of emotion I could just drown in, and I looooved all those close-ups of his face, despite the disheveled topknot and the stubble and the shadows encircling his bloodshot eyes.
Dan Rei infuses Kayo with a quiet grace in speech and action that sweetly tempers her unequivocal and single-minded devotion to her husband. Even on their good days, Mimura’s scenes with Kayo are not the least bit demonstrative (oh that weird Japanese decorum and sense of restraint, tsk), but you nevertheless believe that their relationship goes beyond a mere marriage of convenience. The film’s rawest and most penetrating scenes are those shared by Mimura and Kayo, who together run the whole spectrum of marital woes — from his incapacitation and unemployment, to his suicidal rages, to her exposed infidelity and subsequent banishment, and later on to the realization that Kayo herself has been duped by Lord Shimada, who never meant to help them in the first place. And despite having already divorced Kayo by the time Shimada’s treachery is laid bare, Mimura cannot abide his wife being dishonored so.
The film’s most indelible scene for me is when Mimura resumes training under his old kendo master (Ogata Ken), resolved to square off with Shimada in a duel to the death. But he refuses to divulge why he’s so hell-bent on revenge. “Forgive me,” Mimura tells his sensei, “honor forbids me from saying.” And in this singular heart-wrenching moment, Love, and Honor, have truly become one and the same. The old sensei very wisely leaves things at that, probably reading more into the situation than he lets on. So he deftly steers the training back to their fight fundamentals: “There is one way you can win: that is if you are resolved to die, and the other man wants badly to live.” He then bids Mimura to recite their kendo creed: “Be resolved that you will both die. In that lies victory.” The final face-off between Mimura and Shimada outside the abandoned river shed is depicted with almost unsettling realism. The duel doesn’t feel choreographed at all, no fancy swordplay here: blades swish through the air with desperate but deadly resolve, while the space around them crackles with tension and raw emotion.
I was vaaaassstly relieved that the story ends on a happy note. (Dayyyum, but I got blindsided by that sweet little twist at the end! Heh heh.) And here I was thinking, oh crap, it ain’t gonna end well, Mimura’s gonna get himself killed and then Wifey will commit jigai with a bamboo peg beside her husband’s broken, lifeless body… But I guess not (yay!!!). Mimura and Kayo’s reunion scene (and with that wonderfully written buildup — SANKYOUUU Tokuhei, you wily old fart!!! *blows kiss*) rakes deep streaks down your heart, and you no longer care if all they ever do from hereon to kingdom come is sit on the porch all day listening to the crickets and eating boiled taro stems and feeding their lovebirds, while Tokuhei chops up more firewood in the yard. Who cares if life doesn’t get anymore exciting than this? They love each other AND they’re together — that’s all that matters. You then realize that it isn’t how busy or fast-paced your lifestyle is that makes Living a little less monotonous and a little more bearable. Even the most uneventful existence becomes meaningful when you have someone to share your days with. I guess this proves that Love really does conquer all, because… um, Love is blind, baby.
Artistic & technical merit: B+
Entertainment value: B+