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I saw this film last night with my nephew, and chose it simply because
the title was interesting and it was playing at the local art house, so
I gave it a shot. As I am a bit disillusioned by the Oscars these days
I don't pay much attention to them, I was unaware that this film was a
huge success in Japan and received a Best Foreign Film nomination. What
I received in return for my curiosity was one of the best foreign films
that I have seen in a long, long time.
The crux of the film is the relationship between personal honor and
social honor. Iguchi is indeed a most honorable man. He truly loves his
children and his senile mother, and sacrifices his dignity and station
to care for them. He works from dawn to dusk, attending his duties with
the court by day and working on his farm by night, somehow finding time
to also sell handmade insect/bird cages just to help his family get by.
He does all this even though it soon becomes apparent that he has no
equal as a swordsman, and in that right alone deserves the respect of
those who deride him. We come to understand that selfless sacrifice is
the single greatest act of honor, especially when one can still
consider himself a blessed man. However, the personal honor that Iguchi
wields even more skillfully than his sword becomes at odds with the
social honor that his status as a samurai calls for. This conundrum is
the heart of almost every scene in the film, and reaches its peak as
the story moves toward its climax. Though Iguchi tells his best friend
that he would gladly surrender his status as a samurai to become a
simple farmer, he finds himself unable to resist his call to duty under
the code of the samurai. He knows that to be honorable in his duty as a
samurai, he must compromise his honor as a man. How can he kill a man
to fulfill the unjust motives of his clan, especially when the man he
is fighting is so much like himself?
The direction of the film is beautifully impressionist. Yamada crafts
pictures of everyday life which gives us an inherent understanding of
the life of Iguchi. In one scene, he sits dejectedly on his doorstep
after coming home in the rain, lamenting the holes in his socks while
his squire stands outside in the downpour. In another, he quietly
applies his perfectionism to the construction of his cages in his dark
and dirty living room while his family sleeps. In yet another, he
shares a meal with his family as they laugh and enjoy each other's
company. Yamada's eye for imagery, in combination with his patient and
subtle storytelling, are reminiscent of great impressionist directors
such as Ozu, Tarkovsky, and Malick. There are many other memorable
images in this film, many of which depict the duality of nature. In one
scene we see soldiers learning to fire rifles under the spring buds of
a lotus tree. In another we see men fishing along a sapphire blue
river, with golden fields behind them and a stunning, snow-capped Mount
Fuji on the horizon-- and the bodies of starved peasant children
floating down the river.
This is a great film. See it.
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