Well, it’s time once again for the Seattle International Film Festival, and so I journeyed to the Egyptian on Saturday to see this samurai film. The director, Setsurô Wakamatsu, was in attendance, and in his introductory remarks he said that the samurai film has diminished in popularity in Japan and that he was trying to do something different with the form. His 2009 samurai film, The Unbroken, won the Japanese equivalent of an Oscar for Best Film.
I’m not a huge expert on the samurai genre, but Snow on the Blades did strike me as different from the other ones I’ve seen. Visually, it reminded me at times of Ôshima’s snowy Taboo (1999), but the story didn’t. The time frame jumps backward and forward between 1860 and 1873. In 1860 the shogun has agreed, under threat of American bombardment, to open Japan to international trade. His top adviser, who pushed for the deal, is assassinated by a clan that opposes the treaty. The samurai who was in charge of security during the assassination is not allowed to commit honorable suicide and is charged instead with finding and killing all the assassins. In 1873 all but one of the assassins has been killed.
What’s unusual about the film is that it doesn’t focus on the killing. There are two action set pieces, but other than that the film is, as Wakamatsu said, a quiet one. Instead we get a portrayal of the roiling changes Japan underwent after 1860, from Edo becoming Tokyo, everybody adopting Western clothing, and the code of the samurai being supplanted by new laws. So while we do get a fairly typical treatment of samurai loyalty in the form of the protagonist, Shimura Kingo, who sticks with his orders through thirteen difficult years, his loyalty is mostly communicated via the changing mores around him.
Another unusual aspect of the film, to my eyes, is the amount of attention it gives to women and families, particularly to Shimura’s wife, Setsu, who supports him by working through this entire period. There are two other female characters who also have fairly major roles, and one of them belongs to a group of neighborhood women whom we regularly see exchanging gossip and food at the water well. Miike’s Hara-Kiri gave us a dose of the suffering wife of the samuri, but Snow on the Blades gives a broader view of women’s life and the social role they play.
I had mixed feelings about how all this played on the screen. “I hope it’s not so quiet that you fall asleep,” Wakamatsu quipped through an interpreter, and the quietness didn’t bother me. But it did feel a bit genteel and worthy over all. A bit nice. Which is funny, because I often find samurai films too grim and gloomy. So you give me a feel-good samurai movie, and still I complain? Some people are never satisfied, I guess. Still, despite feeling slightly underwhelmed, I did enjoy the lesson in Japanese history and the unusual take on the meaning of loyalty.
Coming out of the theater it struck me that what was different about Snow on the Blades was that it was a male melodrama, where melodrama is seen as stories about people (usually women) who are trapped by their social roles. However, on further thought I wondered if that isn’t almost always what samurai films are: Stories about men trapped in the social roles created by the samurai code. What’s unusual about Snow on the Blades is how it resolves the contradiction between social expectation and individual desire.