Knowing that The Fencing Master was written by the great Akira Kurosawa probably does the film few favours in the mind of the viewer. The mere mention of the Kurosawa name immediately raises expectations, but how many films can even come close to the standard set by his many masterpieces? As such, it is probably best to forget about Kurosawa’s involvement when viewing The Fencing Master, and just enjoy the film for what it is – a solid period film that is enjoyable without being particularly noteworthy.
The Fencing Master tells the story of a man trying to survive as the only world he knows is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Danpei Ichikawa lives for swordfighting – he was once a renowned kabuki swordfight choreographer, and as the Chairman of the New National Theatre Company, he wants nothing more than to choreograph the swordfights for the modern plays put on by the company. But the company’s lead actor, Sawada, wants a more modern style of swordfighting with a greater sense of “realism”. Though Danpei doesn’t really understand the term, he tries everything he can to do as Sawada wants – at one point, he finds himself in a brawl, and explains later that he was trying to understand the realism of fighting by being punched. But the new swordfights are not well received by audiences, and Sawada decides to dispense with them altogether. The effect this has on Danpei is the emotional core of the film. There is anger there, of course, but there is also a sense of frustration, as he simply cannot comprehend a play without swordfights – “Samurai drama without swordfights makes no sense,” he says. To Danpei, who views swordfighting as his entire life (he even refers to it as his “wife”), the company’s dispensing of the swordfights is a crippling blow to his very existence. This, combined with the illness of his other (i.e. human) wife, is the catalyst for a swift decline in his health. Danpei’s plight serves as a poignant reflection of Japan’s move towards modernism in the decades after the country was opened up to the rest of the world. In the rush to embrace the new, it was inevitable that some aspects of the past would be left behind, no matter how hard they tried to keep up.
Ganjiro Nakamura’s portrayal of Danpei is the highlight of the film. At first, Nakamura brings a youthful exuberance and cheekiness to his character, described by others as a “boy in a man’s body”. But the great strength of Nakamura’s performance is the way in which he conveys the transformation of his character. As Danpei struggles to keep up with the changing world around him, his enthusiasm, passion for his art, and his very lifeblood seem to be gradually crushed by everything going on around him, until he becomes a mere shadow of the man he was. Nakamura does an excellent job of showing us Danpei at these two extremes, and the various phases in between.
The Fencing Master is an effective exploration of a period of great change in Japanese history, told through the story of one man’s struggle to adapt. As long as you go in without bloated expectations derived from Kurosawa’s writing credit, you’re likely to get something out of what is a good, rather than great, film.