Snow on the Blades is a contemplative, elegant drama set at the end of Japan’s feudal era, spanning the decline of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1860s and the dawning of the Meiji period thereafter.
The story follows one Shimura Kingo (Kiichi Nakai), a young man whose family are samurai in service to Ii Naosuke, chief minister to the Shogun. A master swordsman, he has recently married and has been elevated to the position of chief bodyguard to the minister, and looks to have a bright future in front of him.
One day in 1860, however, the minister and his retinue are ambushed while travelling and completely routed, leaving Ii Naosuke murdered in his palanquin and Kingo utterly ruined — as chief of the guard, the blame falls to him, and he is forbidden the honourable way out (ritual suicide) and instead tasked with tracking down the surviving assassins.
The search consumes his life for the next thirteen years, trudging from place to place in full samurai garb and strictly adhering to the old code, even as Japan changes around him and traditional dress gives way to Western suits and uniforms. Kingo’s wife Setsu (Ryoko Hirosue, Departures) supports them both by working simple jobs for meagre pay, as Kingo’s devotion to his cause effectively prevents him from moving on, trapping him in a search for vengeance that looks ever more irrelevant.
The struggle between the desire to do right by oneself as an individual (as well as by one’s family) and the samurai code of bushido is a familiar theme in Japanese period cinema. And the setting of this film — the end of the Edo period, when the social structures that underpinned Japanese society changed dramatically — is a familiar one too, most recently for me in Yoji Yamada’s trilogy (Twilight Samurai, Hidden Blade, Love and Honor).
Often, these stories focus on what the protagonist, a former samurai, needs to do to survive in the new order, from civil work (like policing, an option taken by a friend of Kingo’s in this film) to field and piecework, as in Twilight Samurai. Snow on the Blades is different: Kingo is denied the chance to move on and learn a new trade by his final duty to his slain master, the commission of which might well end in his own death. It’s this sense of inevitable tragedy and growing disconnection from the modern world which provides just about all of the dramatic tension in the film, and it’s a credit both to the cast and to the filmmakers that it works so well and remains engaging for the audience.
Don’t let me give the impression, though, that the film is a gloomy trudge through honour and servitude: there are some surprisingly fun comic touches in the film, as well as the warm rendition of the relationship between husband and wife Kingo and Setsu.
Kiichi Nakai shoulders most of the heavy lifting as Shimura Kingo, managing to look like both an unbendingly loyal paragon of samurai virtue and a loving, tender husband to Setsu. His quarry, played by the chiselled Hiroshi Abe (Thermae Romae) has rather less to do but acquits himself well in the time he has on screen, burdened by a similar state of suspended animation to Kingo’s.
The film itself looks a million bucks and is a thoroughly absorbing experience. The production values are first rate, presented with engaging direction and deliberate, carefully composed photography. The credits list a small army of VFX artists whose job it was, I’m guessing, to keep all that snow looking perfect. The stirring score comes from composer Joe Hisaishi, who regular fans of Japanese cinema will recognise from his work with master animator Hayao Miyazaki and director Takeshi Kitano’s films.
Snow on the Blades is a very good film, and probably my favourite from those I managed to catch at this year’s Japanese Film Festival. Melbournians still have a chance to catch it on the big screen — it’s screening at the JFF there on 1 Dec.