“Snow on the Blades” – 2015 Japan Cuts Film Review

Since the start of this decade, the majority of jidai-geki pictures have been bloodless action-comedies, sometimes based on a popular manga or anime, and starring a bunch of very pretty people. Of course, just because a film embodies all or some of these qualities doesn’t mean it can’t be good. Yet, if we were to look at the recent crop of jidai-geki releases, it would be remiss to not notice the paltry offers on screen, particularly given how much Japan has endured in the last few years. This is a sad state of affairs for a genre that, like the Western in Hollywood cinema, has roots that stretch as far back as cinema’s inception.

Setsuro Wakamatsu’s “Snow on the Blades” (柘榴坂の仇討, 2014) is a picture made in the same vein as Yoji Yamada’s early aughts Samurai Trilogy. It boasts a substantial budget, a well-respected studio (Shochiku), a cast of established actors and carefully crafted framing. However, these same aspects have sucked all the energy in the picture.  The plot revolves around a vassal who, through no fault of his own, can’t react fast enough when a group of assassins ambushes the entourage he has sworn to guard, resulting in his employer’s death. Humiliated, the lone survivor is condemned to spend his remaining years hunting down the men who had a hand in killing his lord after which he will be allowed to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide.

The film’s gravest sin is its utter lack of dramatic conflict. Playing the disgraced samurai Kiichi, Kingo Shimura sleepwalks through the majority of the picture, vacillating between two settings, stoic or anesthetized, and occasionally coming to life during the few times where he has to wield a sword or wax poetic about the man he failed to save. The moment Kiichi is given the task to hunt down the five remaining assassins, we follow him through several flashbacks where he walks around a town square supposedly looking for them, and is then informed through the most unimaginative exposition-laden dialogue that his intended target has already died. These anti-climaxes occur for four out of the five men he must kill. The viewer is constantly reminded that Kiichi has been on his revenge journey for 13 years, but this is not felt in the acting or the visuals. The passage of time is mainly telegraphed through dialogue that amounts to nothing more than the older generation complaining about what they’ve lost with the coming of the West.

The beginning of the Meiji era, when several violent groups were vying for control of how Japan should be run, meant that there was a constant rotation of rebellions, assassinations and back-alley deal making. Instead, like many current jidai-geki, Wakamatsu shoots the past through rose-tinted glasses. Every street, alleyway, hallway and hovel are all elegantly art directed, but devising a convincing simulacrum of Meiji-era Japan cannot be simply accomplished by just getting the right props, costumes and architectural designs on the screen. An auteur like Akira Kurosawa was so meticulous that he once forced his production staff to pour 20 years’ worth of tea into a couple of cups just so that they would show the right amount of patina when filmed for a scene that lasted only a few minutes. This obsession to detail may have given studios and producers alike headaches – and been missed altogether by casual viewers – but the stench of realness has contributed to the making of more masterpieces than well-liked stars or gimmicky plot contrivances. In Wakamatsu’s film, streets are bereft of litter and peasants’ clothes look as if they had come out of the Shochiku wardrobe department, creating an antiseptic quality that is more jarring than anything else in the picture.

At best “Snow on the Blades” is a well-made TV-movie that can be consumed in one afternoon and forgotten by dinnertime. What is most troubling is that a film like this has become the norm for far too long. Jidai-geki don’t need to have sword fights or grand battle scenes to compel a viewer, but they do need to be imbued with something other than surface beauty. God help me, I miss the old masters.

“Snow on the Blades” screens at the Japan Society in New York on Tues., July 14, at 6:30 p.m. as part of Japan Cuts 2015.  For ticket information, go to japansociety.org.