Thursday, December 26, 2013

Movie: When the Last Sword is Drawn review Part 2

When the Last Sword is Drawn(WTLSID) is worthy of being proclaimed as a "Best" movie.  To be a best movie, you have to have: great writing, great cinematography, great acting, and great music.  Its the category I put movies like Lawrence of Arabia in.  There are favorite and great movies that deserve distinction, but maybe not "Best" because the writing is terrible, or the camera work is one dimensioned.

WTLSID is not a very quotable movie.  It does have a couple of places, but its not a book that is going to spawn scripture.  Writing is not just quotable dialogue though, it is also how and why things are said... or as in WTLSID, what can be left out.  The classic samurai movie is like the classic samurai swordsmanship, you do not waste movement.  Things are left unsaid, and you are given time to think to yourself "oh, this is that, and this is how" in your own mind.  It is something many movies made in Hollywood has forgotten, that sometimes you don't need every little emotion spelled out in dialogue.  WTLSID's dialogue is understated and elegant.  If I had not seen Takita's other work, I would assume he was just trying to cop on the Kurosawa feel of samurai movies, but since his other work does not have samurai, I know that his style is coming through.  We are meant to think and to make connections, and this allows us to interject our own emotions into things.  Its like the perfect combination of reading a book and watching a movie.  So much of yourself goes into the imagination while reading a book, its nice to see movies that give us a little of that as well.

The cinematography is sweeping while being intimate.  There are no large scenes of armies marching through valleys, or wide vistas of desert.  Instead we have motion and focus on the close up.  The camera is not simply sat in front of people while they talk close up, we have interesting camera changes and angles, all the while keeping the focus on what is going on.  Anyone can plop a camera down and say "here talk into it", this is not what happens in WTLSID.  How Takita does this, I have not grasped it yet, as you can tell I have trouble translating it to text.  I'm not saying he flies around in the faces of actors, or that he sweeps motion throughout all crazy cam style.  I'm just saying, his intimate camera work is not claustrophobic.  By the time he does Departures, he's even better at it, but he does it well here.

The acting all around is a perfect example of period and genre.  The real clash of personality is in the two main samurai, Yoshimura(Nakai) and Saito(Sato).  Both won their Japanese Oscars as Lead and Support. At first you think Nakai's role is the stand out one.  He is the focus, and we see him as both a struggling loving, family man that has to take on this new personality in a new clan.  When no one is looking, we see into him, and the pain it takes to act as he does.  There is zero hint at this inner struggling while others are watching, and its a great choice by the actor.  Too many times in OTHER movies we see the inner struggle come out and wonder why no one around the character seems to care at obvious signs.  Nakai deserved his award.  Taking a second look at the movie, you may realize that it was Sato that really stretched his acting skills for this role.  He has to play both a young, but troubled character, and an old, wizened one.  All the while, convincing us he is the same man.  After the emotion of seeing who he is, and knowing what really is in his heart, the 2nd viewing of the movie, watch Sato, he is the star on second viewings.

When the Last Sword is Drawn is a period piece, and has an appropriate sound track.  You don't go around humming The Godfather's soundtrack, and you won't go around humming this soundtrack either, but it is there, its appropriate and its masterfully done.  When things get tough, and when the drama increases, you will feel your own feelings raise and the music will get your heart aching or pumping, whichever the movie needs.

Things that were off about the movie?  Even after all my praising of understatement, sometimes I feel like not enough was spoken.  There is a side journey your mind takes, trying to figure out Saito, and you will get there, and you will have independant revations about the character as you remember the circumstances of the beginning of the movie, but you are meant to do all that while digesting the other parts of the movie.  Sure, it leads to the "oh he's... awwwe, ok, I see now" moments, but I would have liked to have seen some more of the older Saito.  The entire movie, Saito says one thing about Yoshimura, and we are supposed to realize he means the other, but I would have liked a little better closure about his thoughts on Yoshimura, rather than leaving it fully to be inferred.

Just a little maybe.

Also there's a couple of side plots that seem to not get developed as much, a few characters that might have needed more screen time for their roles to give us as much emotional kick as other characters give us, but all in all, I am having a hard time finding a reason to complain.  If you're in this for super samurai badassness, then go pick up 13 Assassins, because you will not find lots of it here.

I give the movie 5 out of 5 stars, easily my favorite 21st century Samurai movie to date.  A worthy successor to the style of Kurosawa.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Movie: When the Last Sword is Drawn Part One

*Disclaimer: my thoughts on movies in this blog tend to follow a format.  I do not write about movies unless I have a lot to write.  They are generally broken into 2 parts.  One is a personal history with the subject matter, maybe a little learning thrown in there, and some other stuff.  Part 2 is where I focus on the movie.

Part 1

I grew up loving samurai movies and not realizing it.

I am of course referring to the mass of spaghetti westerns that my father watched all the time.  To make a long story short, basically a few Italian directors saw the masterpieces that the 1950's Japanese film industry were churning out, and decided they could adapt them for a Western(both literal and figurative) audience.  Seven Samurai was turned into Magnificent Seven.  Yojimbo was turned into Fist Full of Dollars.

Much of the intensity and focus of those spaghetti westerns comes directly from the influence of men like Kurosawa.  The directors of the Italian adaptations largely put their own spin on things, but that intensity of the moment, the drama of long camera pans lasting just a little bit longer than they felt they should, that comes from the samurai movies they emulated.  I think that is why I really don't care for many Westerns that come out today.  They've lost that intensity.  They are more concerned with getting their half-historical, half pandering plot out on the table than filming something with intensity and drama.

I think I now seek out Samurai movies to fill that void left by good Westerns.  I have watched many of the Kurosawa classics era, and a handful of more modern treatments.  I expected that the later I go, the closer it would come to the same cycle as Spaghetti Westerns.  I expected the old to be raw and intense, while the modern to be overly concerned with getting things "right" and less concerned with getting things "watchable".

I hate Kill Bill.

Kill Bill poisoned the well and caused many of the greatest samurai movies ever made(the 2000's are a revival of them in Japan) to be passed over because they were not "Kill Bill" enough.  Ironically, what Kill Bill did was pave the way for a lot of mediocre Hong Kong action movies to get brought over here, while the Japanese renaissance of Samurai movies were passed over.

Yojiro Takita.

I first saw one of his movies when I watched Departures.  Departures will be getting its own posts eventually, it is one of the best, most heartfelt movies I have ever watched.  Now that I have watched his Japanese Oscar winning "When the Last Sword is Drawn", I now realize why.  Every scene, every emotion, is INTENSE.  Just like a Samurai, Yojiro Takita has fashioned his film making into never wasting energy, never wasting emotion, never wasting a moment.

It makes me wish we had a Neo Sergio Leone making modern Westerns, but I guess that whole style is still found where it originated over half a century ago, and I have a lot of movies to go through that I had never thought to go looking for.

 Much of the thanks has to go to Netflix for bringing a lot of this stuff to view here in America.