It is not the first time that Takashi Koizumi, who worked as assistant director on numerous Kurosawa Akira films, tackles the jidai-geki genre. In 2014, he brought, with much acclaim, the novel Higurashi no Ki by Rin Hamuro to life on the Silver screen. Can his adaptation of Shiba Ryotaro’s Touge about the heroic Tsugunosuke Kawai, known as the last samurai, attain the same acclaim?
November 9, 1867. The 15th shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa (Masahiro Higashide) informs his retainers that their only hope at protecting the status quo and the achievements of Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first Shogun, is to restore imperial rule and make some drastic changes.
Yet, even after ending the Shogunate, Yoshinobu retained a lot of influence. This situation lead Takamori Saigo, Toshimichi Okubo of Satsuma, and others to violently advocate for the completely deposition of Yoshinobu Tokugawa to truly finalize the imperial restoration. This conflict caused a civil war – i.e. the Boshin war – between the shogunate supporters in the west and the imperial loyalists in the east.
The chief retainer of the Echigo’s Nagaoka domain, Tsuginosuke Kawai (Koji Yakusho) decides to be armed but remain neutral in order to protect the lives of the people. Furthermore, Tsugunosuke aims to mediate between the Aizu forces and the western army (e.g. Satsuma and Choshu) and to end this violent conflict.
The Pass: Last Days of The Samurai can best be read as a historical character study, as a tragic and somewhat melo-dramatic exploration of who Tsuginosuke Kawai was. Tsuginosuke Kawai is presented as to the viewer as someone who is not only radically identified with the traditional samurai-ego but is fully conscious of the promise of progress, the promise of radically rewriting the societal structure for the future (General-note 1). The former is, for example, echoed by his love for geisha, while the latter is underlined by his genuine interest in western stuff (e.g. gatlings guns, music boxes, … etc.). Moreover, he is portrayed as a honourable pacifist, as someone who desire to resolve the conflict without violence and create a future of peaceful and harmonious progress. Sadly, the arrogant self-righteousness of the leaders of Satsuma and Choshu forces him and his clan to resort to the only way left to uphold their honour: military action.
That The Pass: Last Days of The Samurai is mainly concerned with sketching out Tsuginosuke Kawai’s personality is evident in the structure of the narrative. It is not for nothing that the decisive plot-element (e.g. the outcome of Kawai’s meeting with the leaders of the Satsuma and Choshu rebellion) is only introduced at the middle. The ‘before’ is dedicated to sketching out who Kawai was – a sketching-out pushed forward by the dramatic beats foreshadowing the inevitable violent confrontation, while the ‘after’ focuses on the destructive consequences of the failed meeting. Furthermore, The Pass: Last Days of The Samurai starts off, as is often the case in period-drama films, with a decent amount of exposition. Yet, Koizumi, by keeping the explanation of the historical context simple and straightforward, succeeds in offering the spectator a contextual frame that allows him to easily orient himself within the narrative (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2).
It is interesting to explore how Yoshinobu, the shogun, talks about the abolishment of titles such as retainer and lord for progress’ sake. He compares it with removing the bones and organs and dissecting them. Yet, in more psychoanalytic terms, we could say that such radical abolishment takes out the bones of the societal structure, which cause the organs (i.e. subjects) to lose their orientation. These signifiers are, in other words, essential as they give subjects the form to their ego and infuse meaning into their existence within the feudal societal structure.
Yet, as Yoshinobu’s wish (of abolishing the feudal system) only came to fruition in 1871, the Boshin War is still a feudal war between samurai and underpinned by samurai ideals. This is, for instance, underlined by chief retainer Tsuginosuke Kawai when he states that samurai must devote their life to his lord and serve him loyally.
In this sense, the spectator will not fail to notice that that the Boshin War is also an ironic conflict, as the outcome, as evoked by the title, marks the beginning of the end of the feudal structure. The Boshin war is, in a certain sense, the last spasmic convulsion of the samurai as ego, the last excess of samurai who feel, due to the societal unrest instigated by the appearance of the black ships, but that their end is near – i.e. that the feudal system will crumble to dust, the support of the samurai-ego will be washed away, so that an unprecedented era of Japanese history can commence.
The Pass: Last Days of The Samurai delivers the realism that is to be expected from a jidai-geki film – be it the costumes, the beautiful interiors and exteriors (e.g. Japanese gardens), beautiful sights of castles, temples, and villages, or the surrounding nature (e.g. forested mountains, the Shimano river etc.). This realism is also evident in the care that went into visualizing (i.e. through clothing) the contrast between those who remain loyal to the shogunate and the feudal tradition and those who, under the flag of the emperor, search to realize a radical break with the past.
In his composition of The Pass: Last Days of The Samurai, Koizumi heavily relies on static shots. Such reliance enables Koizumi to exploit the dimension of geometry and create some finely composed and visually pleasing shots. Yet, Koizumi’s narrative is not simply a static affair. There is some fluid dynamism present within the composition, yet it is, in most cases, merely for variety’s sake. Even for more action-rich moments (e.g. Tsuginosuke Kawai’s dance in front of the geisha’s, the clashing of armies), Koizumi mainly relies on static shots and unrushed dynamic moments remain only sparsely utilized.
Koizumi’s narrative has a pleasant (melo-)dramatic flavour. The dramatic flavour of The Pass: The Last Days Of The Samurai is supported of the musical accompaniment but relies mostly on the performances. In many instances, the rhythm of a certain speech-acts or the manner of corporal movement plays an instrumental role in heightening the sense of drama. The use of static shots, in this matter, also aids in making the dramatic flavour that resides in certain speech-acts and movements come to its full right.
The Last Days Of The Samurai is a very engaging samurai narrative that does not only offer an intriguing glance at one of the most important crossroads of Japanese history, but also a melodramatic exploration of one subject’s function in it. While some spectators might not appreciate the obvious romanticisation of the samurai code that much, it nevertheless plays an essential role in making the finale emotionally effective.
General-note 1: Of course, the image of the samurai within the narrative is somewhat romanticised and idealized. This romanticization plays an important role in allowing the finale to have its melo-dramatic impact on the spectator.
Narra-note 1: For the spectator that does not know that much about Japanese history the exposition offers only essential information, while for the spectator who is more knowledgeable Koizumi’s exposition is able to refresh his memory.
Narra-note 2: Yet, that does not stop The Pass: Last Days Of The Samurai to contain details that only those truly well-versed in this time period will get. For instance, the exchange between Kawai and Okujiro Obata (-), the chief retainer of the Nakatsu Clan in which Kawai asks him to continue to advance the education of our people only becomes truly meaningful if one realizes that Obata will, in the Meiji period, become an important politician and educator – he played an important role in the history of Keio University.