Love’s Twisting Path (2019) Review

Introduction

Nakao Nakajima, one of the few directors nurtured in Japan’s studio era who is still active, might not immediately ring a bell, he has been directing Yakuza movies and Chanbara movies for more than three decades. Notable movies among Nakajima’s oeuvre are his erotic jidai-geki debut Kunoichi Ninpo (1964) and his award-winning Yakuza (893) gurentai (1966).

With Love’s Twisting Path Nakajima offers another jidai-geki narrative, a movie dedicated to Daisuke Ito, one of the pre-war masters of the jidai-geki genre.

Review

Two and half years have passed since a group of Choshu samurai came to Kyoto. The leaders feel the need to act soon. First of all, because the longer they wait the better it is for the Samurai of the Satsuma domain. And secondly because someone called Sakamoto Ryoma, from the Tosa domain, is said to be trying to broker a deal between the leaders of Choshu domain and those of the Satsuma domain. But before they can plan anything concrete, their hidden base is attacked. The group is scattered, but three of them are able to get away.

Tajuro Kiyokawa (Kengo Kora), a low status ronin who left Choshu to escape his family’s debts, is living in Kyoto, trying to earn money with painting. One day, Tajuro is visited by two of the samurai that managed to escape the other night. They ask him to join them in their plan to overthrow the government. But Tajuro has no interest in joining them. One day, after just having met his brother Kazuma (Ryo Kimura), patrol forces show up at Tajuro’s tenement in order to arrest him on suspicion of plotting against the Shogun.

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While the context of the Edo-period is evident from the get-go, the spectator should not expect an external narration that contextualizes Tajura’s story. The spectator is, in other words, forced to extract the specific context/context by reading the visuals and hearing the (contextualizing) implications present in the interactions. For example, it is only due to the visual and aural references to the ‘eejanaika’ protests, the mass dance-festival-like protests against the failing Tokugawa Shogunate, against westerners and Christians, … etc. that the spectator can deduce that Tajuro’s story takes place between June 1867 and May 1868. Another example concerns Otoyo (Mikako Tabe). Due to one simple detail at the level of Otoyo’s kimono, i.e. the way in which her nape remains visible, the spectator is able to deduce, before she has said anything in her stylish but slightly seductive Kyoto-ben, that she works/has worked in a business where seduction plays an important role.

Even though, in our view, it is not necessary to have any pre-existing knowledge about the final years of the Tokugawa Shogunate to enjoy the narrative, such knowledge will nevertheless heighten one’s viewing pleasure and enable one to fully appreciate the rich visual tapestry Nakajima paints (History-note 1). In this sense, Nakajima’s jidai-geki reveals itself as a film, first and foremost, for the fans of the genre.

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Tajuro, the titular hero of Love’s Twisting Path, has abandoned the way of the samurai and traded this live for a more peaceful life. Yet, despite his refusal to be a samurai, his heart remains righteous. While he does not want to play a part in the ‘rebellious’ plans of his clansmen or meddle in samurai-business, he aids, without second-guessing, Otoyo. When some officers of the law start thrashing her izakaya, due to her refusal to hand over her new-girls as prostitutes, he immediately comes to quell the disturbance. Tajuro’s act is an act against the exploitation of power, a power they, as officers of the law, try to abuse for their own enjoyment. This act of Tajuro can even be said to communicate his opposition to any kind of violence that has, directly or indirectly, an aim to enable enjoyment.

But, despite this righteousness, Sanjuro has no intention to tread the path of the samurai again. Even after being royally paid by Sanzaemon Ito (-), in exchange for his service, he refuses to take up the sword. Instead, he embarks on a path of self-satisfaction (e.g. indulging in alcohol, spending all of his money). While this alcoholic indulging in pleasure is aimed to quell the subjective conflict his sense of giri (obligation) confronts him with, this indulging also confronts Tajuro with the failure he is as samurai. The act of indulging confronts him, in other words, with his very inability to accede to the image of male power that the samurai conditions.

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The way in which Sanjuro has retreated from society, the way he refuses to play his part in the political unrest that will define the future of Japan, renders him, as nothing other than, a failure. The state of his sword reveals nothing other than that Sanjuro has given up on his existence as samurai. But eventually a feeling of ninjo (human feeling) will make Sanjuro take up his true sword again, assume his existence as samurai, and accept any consequences this assuming might lead to (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2).

Love’s Twisting Path is framed with a very dynamic mix of floating spatial moving shots, following shots and fixed shots. The dynamism of the cinematography is function of two different elements. Firstly, of the way in which movement and fixity shift within shots and, secondly, of how movement and fixity shift within the scene-composition, i.e. the between-shot difference. This cinematographical dynamism turns Love’s Twisting Path into a very easy-to-watch and visually pleasing movie. But beyond providing visual pleasure, this dynamism – and this is equally important – also allows Nakajima to put narrative emphasis wherever needed. By dynamically shifting to fixed moments, Nakajima is able to emphasize those verbalizations, those expressions, and those interactions important for the development of the story (Cine-note 1).

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While cinematographical dynamism is also apparent in the framing of the sighting sequences, this dynamism is not employed to empower the fighting scenes or to highlight the impact of the katana as such (Cine-note 2). Nevertheless, the dynamism, by virtue of remaining continuous throughout the entire the narrative, subtly echoes the fact that brawls and sword-fighting were daily occurrences at the end of the Edo-period. Nakajima, furthermore, frames the myriad of sword-fighting scenes with a certain cinematographical distance, a distance that enables him to stay visually true to the samurai narratives of the past and those of Daisuke Ito in particular.

What makes Love’s Twisting Path’s narrative so compelling are the performances that animate the story. The narrative is, in fact, only attains emotional substance for the spectator via the chemistry between Mikako Tabe and Kengo Kora. It is their chemistry that leads the spectator to support the possibility of a romance between them. And it is this support that will, as the narrative enters his finale, give Sajuro’s subjective journey its moving dimension.

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Another element that makes Love’s Twisting Path so enjoyable is the musical accompaniment. By using a mix of traditional Japanese music, European classical music (e.g. string-music), and more dramatic music (to accompany fighting sequences), Nakajima succeeds in empowering the emotional stakes of Tajuro’s and Otoyo’s narrative. The spectator’s enjoyment is mainly function of the interplay between music plus sound (e.g. the sound of swords clashing) and the acting performances (as mentioned above). It’s due to this interplay and nothing else that Love’s Twisting Path succeeds in providing the thrills that any great jidai-geki narrative needs to have.

Love’s Twisting Path is a truly enjoyable ode to the jidai-geki narratives of the past and those of Daisuke Ito in particular. Nakajima’s narrative, which may be somewhat confusing for those spectators lacking historical knowledge about the context, delivers everything that one expects from an jidai-geki narrative. Love’s Twisting Path is proof that the traditional jidai-geki narrative still has a future within Japanese cinema.

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Notes

History-note 1: It is also due to speech-interactions that the conflict between the Shinsengumi and the patrol force is evoked.

Narra-note 1: Tajuro is only able to assume his position of samurai because of Otoyo’s love. This underlines the well-known fact that a man can only be a man in relation to a woman.

Narra-note 2: One truly powerful moment in the narrative is when Tajuro refuses to promise Toyo that he will join her in Takao. His refusal powerfully communicates that he knows that only death awaits him.

Cine-note 1: In some cases, slow spatially moving shots also add narrative emphasis.

Cine-note 2: Near the end of the narrative, one shaky shot is used in the composition of a fighting scene. This is the only instance where tension is explicitly evoked through cinematographical means.

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