Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cruel Tales of Bushido

You know, I've seen a lot of samurai films in my time, so it's not every day that one comes along and blows me away. But that's just what happened yesterday. The film? Cruel Tales of Bushido (1963), directed by Tadashi Imai. Jidai-geki superstar Kinnosuke Nakamura turns in a devastating performance -- or should I say half a dozen or more -- portraying a succession of ancestors stretching from the dawn of the Tokugawa period (early 17th century) right up to the present day (the present being the early 1960s). In each vignette, a male member of the Iikura family is forced to endure some humiliating, if not downright heinous, demand from his feudal lord. Each time he submits, following the strict tenets of bushido, the "code of the warrior." Things ratchet up with each succeeding generation, the cruel treatment becoming mind-bendingly sadistic. Imagine the worst thing you could do to a man -- yep, that happens in this film. And through it all, the Iikura men obediently comply, never standing up, never fighting back. Are they all model samurai or merely pitiable fools?

While director Imai, an outspoken leftist with a flair for didactic, political statement films, pushes the cruelty envelope throughout the film, there's no denying that such abuses were not uncommon. Indeed, Imai asserts that such practices are ongoing, tracing the same abusive lord/vassal relationship to the modern, corporate world. While I wasn't crazy about his Adauchi (Revenge, 1964), I have to say this film is an unqualified masterpiece, a timeless tragedy and a crowning achievement

Cruel Tales of Bushido won the Golden Bear award at the 1963 Berlin Film Festival.

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