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When The Last Sword Is Drawn
cast: Kiichi Nakai, Koichi Sato, Yui Natsukawa, Takehiro Murata, and Miki Nakatani

director: Yojiro Takita

143 minutes (15) 2003
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Debbie Moon
Japan, 1899: as a doctor and his wife prepare to close their clinic and move to China, an old man brings his grandson for treatment. On seeing a photograph of a samurai in full armour, the old man recognises him as an old colleague, Yoshimura, and between them the two men unravel the story of Yoshimura's life and the downfall of the samurai age...

When The Last Sword Is Drawn is an intelligent and moving look at the twilight years of the samurai class, and the way individuals coped with the unprecedented changes that swept Japan as it opened up to the outside world. Yoshimura is no hero - he has disgraced his family by leaving his clan and joining a police force composed of masterless samurai, because it was impossible to feed his family on his clan wages. He's greedy, self-centred, and a figure of fun. Yet, when this force is drawn into a widening conflict, guilt at that betrayal drives him to acts of great bravery, and finally the clash between honour and friendship leads him to death.

The action scenes are very evocative, but it's the moments of quiet tragedy that really draw you in to this fragile, honour-bound world. The structure of the film is unconventional, perhaps reflecting its adaptation from a novel: the 1899 sequences, and his presence as narrator, suggest that the old man is the centre of the story, but his younger self is only a foil for Yoshimura, and disappears completely later, leaving the viewer confused about whose story they're watching. The huge cast of peripheral characters can also be bewildering; but leaving those problems aside, the film is a superbly rendered portrait of a vanished world, and the people who struggled to save it. It's a must for samurai movie fans, and a real treat for everyone else.

After a trailer on the first disc, a second disc contains a spread of DVD extras. There's substantial behind-the-scenes footage, ranging from fight scenes to the best way to eat on camera; interviews with the writer, director, and cast, and a group-reminiscence with the actors; premiere footage, and a press conference. The interviews are formulaic, however, and though there are some interesting snippets about Japanese culture of the time, there's not much here that really furthers your understanding of the filmmaking process.

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