This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.
A measured, thoughtful samurai film set in the transition years between the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the rapidly modernizing Meiji period, in 1860s Japan, Snow on the Blades follows a lone samurai’s quest for redemption as the world changes around him. Sporting the glossy sheen that’s become the dominant visual style of historical epics in recent years, every snowflake a brilliant white, every earth tone deep and rich, every camellia a signifier, it presents a sharp ideological break with its forebears, the contemplative samurai epics of the 1950s and 60s, most especially Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (and its 2011 remake by Takashi Miike). Rejecting the simple one-to-one allegory of the samurai ethos as stand-in for the military dictatorship that so disastrously led Japan into World War II, director Setsurô Wakamatsu’s film seeks out a kind of middle ground, condemning the brutality at the heart of the code while extolling the heroism of the men and women who killed (themselves and others) to enforce it.
Kiichi Nakai plays Shimura Kingo, a master swordsman newly appointed as bodyguard to the Shogun’s First Minister. Notorious for his brutal repression of the samurai who oppose his moves toward modernization, the Minister quickly impresses Shimura with his demeanor, obsessed with poetry and birdsong and beauty (the ultimate samurai ideal: trained killers who love flowers). However, The Minister is quickly assassinated and Shimura, having disgracefully survived the attack, is tasked with hunting down any remaining assassins and killing them. Only then while he have regained enough honor to commit suicide. Shimura doggedly pursues this task for the next 13 years.
Skipping ahead via titles and montage, we find ourselves in 1874, the Shogunate having been dissolved and the Emperor reasserting power in a vast modernization campaign, one which will transform Japan from what had been a state purposefully frozen as a 17th Century feudal system into one of the most powerful industrial nations on the planet in only a few short decades. All the samurai traditions: the clothes, the hair, the clan structures, have been swept away in the face of Westernization, yet Shimura continues his anachronistic quest. The bulk of the film alternates between him and the object of his search, the last remaining killer now working under an assumed name as a rickshaw man, single but very attached to the widow next-door and her adorable little daughter.
Rather than a tale of bloody revenge, then, Snow on the Blades is almost entirely a meditation on the meaning of the samurai tradition in the modern world. In the post-war years and beyond, that tradition has almost always served as a stand-in for contemporary concerns, most specifically the sense of national shame and outrage over the ideologies that led to war. That government had deliberately simplified and reified the samurai way of life as a Nationalist ideal, it’s how they convinced men that flying their planes into enemy ships was a noble idea. But Wakamatsu retreats from that simple correspondence. There is certainly a sense of the futility and pointlessness of Shimura’s quest, the waste of his life and a clear assertion that he and his wife would be better off if he moved on with the times (Wakamatsu’s focus on the impact of the samurai life on women is a notable new addition to the genre, and provides an air of lightness and deflating humor to what is often a dour tale). But there is nonetheless a deep respect for his quixotic pursuit, his doggedness in the face of change and a reverence for the traditional and forms of the old world. This goes so far as to demonstrate an all-encompassing respect for the perpetrators of the assassination. As one somewhat helpful official tells Shimura: though they were ultimately on the wrong side of history, they were at least acting out of a sense of patriotism, for the good of the nation, and thus deserving of honor. That this valuation of patriotism over the morality of assassination is a germ of the Nationalism that would come to dominate Japanese politics in the first half of the next century is left unspoken.
As with Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, the ideological and political signifiers of the past are being swept away in this new era of historical epic. Beneath an onslaught of digital and digital-enhanced imagery, filmmakers are envisioning a past free from the previous generations’ commitments, erasing old distinctions in favor of pure spectacle and emotion. While Tsui highlights and questions that ideological hollowness, Snow on the Blades takes a more simple “everyone has the reasons” approach, a focus on the human impact of broad social changes, that risks erasing or at least pasting over important moral and political distinctions with rich sounds and images and the romantic syrup of a Joe Hisaishi score.
Snow on the Blades plays Saturday May 16 at the Egyptian, Sunday May 17 at the Harvard Exit and Monday May 18 at the Lincoln Square.