Here’s a different type of samurai movie, the winner of the Japanese equivalent of the Oscars, following the strange, grudging friendship that develops between two warriors – one fierce, the other mild. It’s a massive sprawling affair that starts in 1899 in a doctor’s office where an old man and his grandson are seeking help. Then, a picture glimpsed on the wall prompts an alarmed look on the grandfather’s face and suddenly he’s diving back through a wibbly wobbly dissolve to a former time, when the Emperor and the Shoguns were facing off for one of their periodic powerplays, and the mercenary samurai were girding themselves for the last heave. The story of the Shinsengumi is a well-known underdog tale in Japanese culture. For non-Japanese perhaps the best way to describe this distillation of the story into just over two hours of screen time is to imagine if Judith Krantz had decided to set her latest airport doorstopper of a novel in the last days of the sword. Mind-spinningly confusing it might be but these two parallel stories taking place in flashback are padded out with some mighty action sequences, and some moments of exquisite, dirt-eating melodrama. None of this helps orientate the newbie but those familiar with the story might fare better with this big beach melodrama that’s not without its guilty pleasures.
© Steve Morrissey 2004