Directed by Hideyuki Hirayama
Starring Etsushi Toyokawa, Chizuru Ikewaki and Koji Kikkawa
A loyal samurai commits high treason by murder, but instead of death, he finds a life he didn’t expect.
Kanemi Sanzaemon (Etsushi Toyokawa), a samurai in service to his lord during the Edo period in Japan (Edo period being 1603-1868), suddenly and without provocation murders his lord’s mistress. Expecting a beheading, Sanzaemon is instead spared with a year of house arrest and servitude as his lord’s bodyguard. With his wife dead from disease, Sanzaemon must now find a new future for himself and his caretaker and wife’s niece Rio (Chizuru Ikewaki).
Sword of Desperation, or Hisshiken Torisashi, is an adaption of the historical fiction book of the same name by Shuhei Fujisawa. Don’t go into the film expecting a samurai epic, with swords flying about. Despite the box copy calling Sanzaemon an expert swordsman, the film doesn’t even reference it for the first hour, at which point it seems out of place. It’s not until an hour and a half into the film that there’s any actual combat. This film is not about swordplay, but it is about desperation.
This is a character study on Sanzaemon trying to find meaning in his life after he loses his wife and resigns himself to his own execution. His entire life is desperation, from losing his wife to killing the mistress to his service to his lord and the final showdown. He’s almost like a lost puppy, and the audience can’t help but be enthralled in watching Sanzaemon being toyed with by the whims of his superiors.
Overall, he’s a stoic and nice guy, so much so that the audience can tell right away that the murder he commits is out-of-character. The rest of the cast puzzle over why he kills the lord’s mistress, and although I believe one of them is correct, Sanzaemon himself never says why. Not that she didn’t have it coming though, as the film spells out how corrupt she and the lord are, but that doesn’t seem to bother Sanzaemon.
Some may be frustrated by the film’s lack of answers or redemption for Sanzaemon’s crime (he doesn’t really attempt to make up for it), but any clear answer would simplify the character and spoil the exploration the film and the audience undertake.
The film also excels in its design and attention to detail. It’s pretty in its scenic setting of a country village in Edo-period Japan. The costuming and set design are well done and look as period accurate as this non-historical-expert reviewer can tell. Basically, it’s nice to look at.
The film starts to come apart in its heavy flashback usage. It doesn’t always do a good job transitioning back and forth between the past and present. Often the transition looks like a regular scene change, so it may take a moment to realize you’ve just been jettisoned back a few years from what was just happening. Sometimes there’s a color fade to signify the change, but not always. Sometimes it’s even a flashback within a flashback. You get used to it, but there is a small adjustment period that may be jarring.
The Video and Audio
Video is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. It’s crisp and clean, allowing the audience to easily see the detail in the film. Audio is only in Japanese and comes in both 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo. It’s nice that the film gives the option of yellow or white subtitles. Both sets are readable, thanks to bold black outlining that keeps the subtitles from disappearing into the background, so the choice is more a matter of preference.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The film comes on a single disc in standard packaging. I like the simple cover with a close up of Etsushi Toyokaya’s Sanzaemon on a dark blue background with a couple of film festival awards listed.
In terms of extras, the most interesting and useful is the set of Program Notes on the disc. These informational slides help explain some of the period aspects a western audience may not be familiar with, as well as give background info on the original creator Shuhei Fujisawa, director Hideyki Hirayama and star Etsushi Toyokawa. Still, these notes would have probably been more helpful as a booklet or on-screen pop-up notes so you could read along with the film. Also included are trailers for other AnimEigo samurai films and an image gallery.
Overall (Not an Average)
If you know what you’re getting into, watching this guy Sanzaemon be a plaything for the forces in his world and being unable to control his life, then Sword of Desperation will be a good pick for you. If you’re expecting unrelenting sword-on-sword combat, you’ll still get it, but you’ll have to wait a while before your blood-splattering tastes are sated.
The Film 7/10
The Video and Audio 8/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 7/10
Overall (Not an Average) 7/10