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Meitô bijomaru (The Famous Sword Bijomaru)

Posted by martinteller on April 24, 2014

Kiyone Sakurai (Shôtarô Hanayagi) has forged a sword for his benefactor, Kozaemon Onoda (Ichijirô Oya), who took care of Kiyone since he was orphaned.  Onoda carries the sword on a visit to the emperor, but when his group is attacked by ronin, the sword breaks.  As punishment for not doing his part to quell the attackers, Onoda is sentenced to house arrest.  Overcome by shame, Kiyone attempts seppuku, but Onoda’s daughter Sasae (Isuzu Yamada, long before her memorable turns in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Yojimbo) stops him.  A respected samurai named Naito offers to put in a good word for Onoda… in exchange for Sasae’s hand in marriage.  Onoda refuses, and the insulted Naito murders him.  Now Sasae wants vengeance, and she asks Kiyone to craft an appropriate sword to carry out the deed.  Kiyone turns to his master Kiyohide (Eijirô Yanagi) and fellow apprentice Kiyotsugu (Kan Ishii) for help in forging a sword fit for an emperor.

This is my 22rd film by Kenji Mizoguchi.  The man made over 90 films, but most of his pre-war pictures are lost.  I’ve seen everything that could be called a “major” work by Mizoguchi, and most of the “minor” work too, which leaves scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Not that this is a bad movie… there’s a little shoddy workmanship here and there (most likely due to wartime budget restrictions) but the story is told well enough.  You can even see a little of the Mizoguchi flair in a couple of elegant tracking shots.  And there’s a particularly unusual touch late in the film where Kiyone, trying to forge on his own after Kiyotsugu passes out, is visited and “assisted” by the spiritual presence of a ghostly Sasae.  But the story is pretty routine and predictable, very little depth or nuance.  Kaneto Shindô, once an associate of Mizoguchi’s, implies that it was done as work for hire, and it shows.  The performances are nothing to write home about, either, although I liked Hanayagi and Ishii in the forging scenes, and Yanagi’s over-the-top intensity is something to see.

As in Mizoguchi’s adaptation of The 47 Ronin, there are signs of wartime influence.  We’re treated to an oddly shoehorned-in speech about the glory of Japan, and there’s a lot of talk about loyalty to the emperor.  And really, the whole film could be seen as a rallying cry to arms manufacturers: this is important stuff, fellas, so put some heart into it!  The movie itself could use a little heart, too, although it does end on a more humanist note, as the sword is sheathed and attention turns to more amorous affairs.  Rating: Fair (63)


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