Iikura Susumu (Kinnosuke Nakamura) stares panic-stricken at his hospitalized fiancée; he blames himself for her attempted suicide. “From the depths of my brain, as I questioned myself…” Susumu suddenly remembers attending his mother’s funeral in Shinshu province where he discovered the Iikura family chronicle, and also where “there suddenly arose dormant memories”. From its pages he gleans not only something about his family’s past, but some preconscious part of himself. What unfolds is a fable of personal and cultural demons, given record in the Iikura chronicle and exorcised throughout the generations.
The chronicle of the Iikura clan first takes us to Jirozaemon Hidekiyo who commits seppuku after a military blunder to save face for his Lord. His son, Sijaemon, is ensured a handsome stipend that he soon squanders due to the inept servitude to his Lord. Sijaemon in turn commits seppuku, and splendidly, allowing the family line to continue… The chronicles gradually become more detailed and, as the narrator tells us, “bizarre”. Iikura Kyutaro is a samurai-in-training who proves himself an adept swordsman. His Lord fawns over him and promotes him to page, which means intimate services in the Lord’s bed chamber, a proposition Kyutaro initially resists, but eventually submits to for he doesn’t really have a choice in the matter anyway. Kyutaro falls in love with the wife of his increasingly cruel and jealous Lord, consummates that love, and is summarily castrated as punishment, but not before his progeny finds its womb. The Iikura clan continues… and so continues the cycle of the cruel Lord exploiting his dutiful retainers.
The longest and most interesting segment is also the most brutal and emotionally charged, and it begins with a volcanic eruption. The eruption of Mount Asuma signals the beginning of the Tanmei period, marked by a pronounced famine which lasts nearly a decade. Iikura Shuzo, another adept swordsman, is promoted by Lord Tanuma and with a promotion comes greater and often undesirable duties: Shuzo and other retainers are required to put some poor farmers to the saw, an ugly, draconian execution, prompted by the collective farmers’ direct petition to the government. Not wholly satisfied with Shuzo’s sacrifices, Lord Tanuma demands Shuzo make a gift of his daughter Sato, dressed up and delivered to Tanuma like a Kyoto doll, even though she has a prior engagement to the young, noble Kazuma. Shuzo reassures his children that all will be well, that “the lives of samurai do not belong to the samurai.” Still not contented, Tanuma demands Shuzo’s wife Maki, who opts to commit ritual seppuku rather than adultery.
Finally at his wit’s end, a blindfolded Shuzo is forced to unknowingly execute both his daughter and her fiancee with the ‘Sword of Darkness’, a blindfolded demonstration of skill invented by Shuzo and what first impressed Tanuma enough to promote him. Shuzo is shocked when he discovers his unintentional deed, but he nonetheless persists in his delusion: “To die in service to your Lord; that is the beginning of loyalty.” With these words Shuzo too commits seppuku. Tanuma laughs. This episode in particular seems to have a lot of echoes in the work of Masaki Kobayashi, especially Samurai Rebellion. Both feature characters pushed to the brink by their wanton masters and broach themes of loyalty, sovereignty and justice in feudal Japan.
Kinnosuke Nakamura plays all six of Susumu’s ancestors very competently, but his portrayal of Shuzo is simply a tour-de-force. Some of the compositions developed by Imai and Makoto Tsuboi, his cinematographer, are startlingly powerful, the camera always seems to know right where Nakamura’s face will be at its most expressive. Amazing stuff. Unfortunately, the rest of the film isn’t nearly as good as the Shuzo chapter. We are left with a film that is derelict in its total composition; what could have been a strong series of chapters threaded politically and ideologically with a synergetic impact is more like a sine wave that crests only in the middle. Fortunately, that crest is so strong, but it casts a shadow. It is a thematic microcosm for the entire film, rendering the other chapters redundant, and indulgent. Maybe Imai should have considered a series of films set in chronological motion that explore everything that’s present here, but in less haste.
Interestingly, the narrative comes back to Susumu and his fiancée before the prologue chapter. We are given exposition on their personal backgrounds and their relationship, and Imai makes the case that the behavioral predilections on display throughout the centuries in samurai culture have found a new home in the bureaucracy of the modern corporation. Susumu the salary-man and his fiancée work for opposing companies, and the loyalty of each to their respective company tests and almost breaks the confidence they have in each other. But Imai ends on a jarringly optimistic note: the girl awakens from her coma and the couple make amends and look to the future. Perhaps the director or Toei or their screenwriters sensed that the budding youth culture of the ’60s would challenge the collective repose of social-hierarchical conceit and its accompanying narcissism and emerge, if not as staunch anarchists, then as individuals with personal bonds superseding national ones.
Bushidô zankoku monogatari is straight-forward, no-nonsense, literary storytelling, to its detriment. We have chapters that are meant to parallel and reinforce one another, but not to stratify or obfuscate our thematic understanding. So there is plenty of redundancy here, but perhaps that subtly illustrates the point: Japan as victim of its own inability to learn, to grow. Its embrace of a ruthless patriarchy goes back centuries, as the film stresses pointedly, despite the kind of superficial changes that people often call progress.