If you love Yasujirô Ozu, Sword of Desperation may impress you. The film pays such attentive homage to Ozu’s style that it could easily be mistaken for one of his films. On that level, it’s an impressive work. However, it’s a work that’s all borrowed style and no substance.
The film opens with a murder. Kanemi Sanzaemon (Etsushi Toyokawa), a highly regarded swordsman, approaches concubine Renko (Megumi Seki) after a domain-sponsored Noh performance and stabs her, seemingly in cold blood. Instead of having him killed, the domain council strips him of his rank and reduces his rice salary.
Flashbacks surround Kanemi’s self-imposed exile, illuminating the reasons for his murder. It seems Renko’s growing influence on Tabu Ukyou (Jun Murakami), the domain’s lord, upset the balance. Her insistence on wasting domain money on decadence while the peasants starved frustrated the councilmen. Kanemi, fully aware of the dishonor of his actions, felt compelled to act for the good of the domain.
Sword of Destiny loses interest in the story of a flawed but (somewhat) just antihero about halfway through. It seems like fireworks will go off when Kanemi is called from his exile to work as a servant for Tabu, but that never happens. The film, instead, gets distracted with a fairly ridiculous, vaguely mystical swordfight between Kanemi and Lord Obiya (Koji Kikkawa), who opposes Tabu’s policies and plans a coup. Kanemi is warned early on what Obiya has planned, and it’s strongly hinted that he can regain his honor by picking up the sword and saving Tabu’s life.
The entire third act descends into an orgy of violence that not only loses sight of its characters and the initial, compelling conflicts of the film—it loses sight of story and theme. The first half has virtually nothing to do with the second, aside from extending an odd romantic subplot involving Kanemi and his niece-in-law, Rio (Chizuru Ikewaki), whose husband rejected her. However, this subplot takes a backseat to the wanton, unearned violence and ends in an abrupt, unsatisfying scene.
Aping Ozu’s style doesn’t exactly help the film’s cause. Every moment of the film is slow and methodical, attempting to mine suspense—as Ozu did—through the intense focus on mundane action and ominous shots of nature (gloomy skies and windblown trees). The almost obsessive attention to detail makes the raucous violence of the last half hour feel like a cheap way to end what started as a sober, reflective film. It’s tonally jarring in a way that’s more frustrating than a compelling defiance of convention.
The film’s style also undermines the fact that the screenplay does not have nearly the same laser-like focus as director Hideyuki Hirayama. Perhaps if more time had been spent giving the story a more natural arc instead of lingering on shots of servants opening and closing rice-paper doors, the film would have worked better overall.
Ultimately, the best part of Sword of Desperation is Toyokawa’s intense performance. I just wish a performance that good could have found a place in a better movie.