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98 of 104 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars SWORD OF DESPERATION Puts Bushido Films Back On Top
Let's square this up right away: Bushido films are not for everyone. Why not? For starters, these flicks - usually detailing the morality tales of samurai warriors - rarely tend to be told at breakneck pace. They don't usually employ too many storytelling techniques all that similar to Western film sensibilities, a surprise given how many Western films are based on...
Published on February 29, 2012 by E. Lee Zimmerman

versus
29 of 38 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars . . . SOMBER, SULLEN, SLOW, MORBID, INSCRUTABLE, NOT AT ALL 'THRILLING' AS SAID IN THE PROMO COPY
I have never seen any action movie where the major action is the protagonist staring blankly ahead seemingly pondering an inscrutable concept for most of his film time. Never have seen such a boring and downer of a samurai/bushido movie, made more despondent by a Hollywood Strings violin music romantically playing mostly throughout. Violins and flutes, played the American...
Published on July 3, 2012 by Roy Clark


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98 of 104 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars SWORD OF DESPERATION Puts Bushido Films Back On Top, February 29, 2012
This review is from: Sword of Desperation (DVD)
Let's square this up right away: Bushido films are not for everyone. Why not? For starters, these flicks - usually detailing the morality tales of samurai warriors - rarely tend to be told at breakneck pace. They don't usually employ too many storytelling techniques all that similar to Western film sensibilities, a surprise given how many Western films are based on samurai pictures; what I mean here is that, when it comes to editing, the only quick cutting is done at the edge of a sword, but generally that takes place after great posturing and positioning. I've heard it said that the pace can be considered somewhat languid by some standards, and I personally think that's because the core traits of these samurai warriors - trust, loyalty, mastery, and (most importantly) honor - are usually reduced to character beats in U.S. films. For example, Character A says Character B is "very faithful to his cause," and American audiences accept that; Bushido films will expend five minutes of film to e-s-t-a-b-l-i-s-h Character B's conviction to a principle. Bushido films "show" stories instead of "tell" stories, and therein lies the fundamental drawbacks.

However, for those of us who embrace this unique form of storytelling, SWORD OF DESPERATION is nothing short of magnificent, a welcome throwback to samurai films of yesteryear with polished acting sharing face time with equally polished swords. Thankfully, the producers avoided the excessive bloodspray so common to lesser Bushido flicks - ones principally capitalizing on gore and violence - though there's more than a fair share of slicing and dicing on display. Period details are spectacular, and the sum total of these parts is an exceptional accomplishment.

MILD SPOILERS: The film opens with a surprise big enough that other films would save it for later: for no apparent reason, a royal guard, Kanemi Sanzaemon (played with the appropriate amount of samurai stoicity by Etsushi Toyokawa), assassinates his lord's concubine. To his shock, his punishment is mild, as he is imprisoned in his home for one year. As the story unfolds, we learn that Sanzaemon's wife has died (was that part of what drove him to do what he did?), but he's able to entrust the care of his home to his niece, Rio (played by the lovely and demure Chizuru Ikewaki). After he's released from his home - and to an even greater surprise - he's suddenly promoted back to full status and assigned to serve as his lord's personal bodyguard. Little does Sanzaemon know that he's unwittingly become a pawn in a game of royal deception, one that won't be fully revealed until the cost may be greater than any one man should ever be asked to bear.

The film's title, SWORD OF DESPERATION, actually refers to a unique sword-fighting maneuver mastered by Sanzaemon. While the audience is teased to see its origins and its development, the grand secret of how it plays into the central story - and the effect it has on these characters - is masterfully hidden away until the film's bloody conclusion. Also, the story is based on a novel by Shuhei Fujisawa, and that comes as no surprise; the story is heavy with Shakespearean-style political scheming of the palace elite, and it's layered fairly evenly with consistent plot and character developments right up until the closing frames of the picture. Suffice it to say, every piece to this puzzle has a time and a place in this story, and, like a good puzzle, the complete picture isn't fully revealed until the last bit is placed on the board.

Even with all the Machiavellian undertones, SWORD remains a quiet, almost uniquely meditative experience. The characters are given brief text introductions at the beginning - some of this is necessary to establish who's who and to fully appreciate those early events - but everyone's true motivations (even those belonging to our lead characters) are shaded with healthy bits of screen melancholy. Like Sanzaemon's deadly expert swordplay, every pose and every movement has its proper place in the story, and these characters are treated no differently, a stroke of brilliant construction by the writer, director, and actors. Like that swift strike of the samurai's blade, these players spring into action only when called upon - when needed to advance the narrative. As a consequence, the film forces the viewer to pay closer attention to even the calmest of moments because you never know when evil may strike.

SWORD OF DESPERATION received no less than six nominations for the 2011 Japan Academy Prize, including nods for Best Actor (fact: Mr. Toyokawa won), Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing, and Best Lighting. Additionally, the packaging boasts that the film was an "Official Selection" for the World Competition category at the 34th Montreal World Film Festival 2010. Clearly, where recognition carries influence in the film community, the picture is clearly an accomplished piece of cinema excellence.

The disc - disappointingly so - is short on extras, though that's not all that uncommon with foreign films obtaining U.S. DVD release. It contains theatrical trailers (one for SWORD and then two previews for related Bushido films) and an image gallery from the shooting process, along with some basic program notes for the picture, nothing with any great detail. For Bushido junkies, it would've been nice had anyone put some thought into a special feature highlighting the history of samurai films, their evolution, their influence on Western films, etc., but, alas, it wasn't meant to be. The film is crisp throughout with sharp colors though much of the palette here is largely natural or muted. The sound carries consistently, though there's very little rise and fall in any of the channels. (Again, Bushido films are NOT about laser-wielding robot fighters from space; most everything - picture and sound and performance - are grounded in as natural setting as can be preserved on film.)

Highest recommendation

In the interests of fairness, I'm comfortable disclosing that the fine folks at Animeigo provided me with a DVD screener copy of the film for the purposes of completing this review.
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63 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic Samurai Movie, February 18, 2012
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This review is from: Sword of Desperation (DVD)
I really loved this Samurai movie set in the Edo period of Japan. Some may find the plot a bit slow and plodding but I liked how the slow build up of the story and characters only added to the amount of tension in the final sword fight scene. You know the fight is coming but you're on the edge of your seat when it finally does. The beginning of the movie is seen partly through a series of flashbacks which can be a bit confusing at first but bit by bit it all falls into place, is revealed and becomes clear. The lead actor Etsushi Toyokawa gives a stunning and stoic performance as do all the actors in this fine film. I fell in love with his character. I won't give a synopsis of the film as I don't want to spoil anything for other lovers of the Samurai genre. I'm very glad I got this movie for my Asian film library and it is a definite must watch again movie. Some may say it's a formulaic Samurai movie but as I said I just loved everything about it, the costuming, sets, cinematography, subtle nuances, treachery, deceit, romance, loyalty, intrigue and of course a great sword fight. It's all in there.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars sword of desperation, March 16, 2012
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This review is from: Sword of Desperation (DVD)
elegant, simple tale told in the best Japanese bushido tradition.this new film needs to be enjoyed more than once so that the excellent photography.landscapes and actors' facial expressions can be fully savored aside from the subtitles.the sets and costumes are detailed & flawless.the story almost seems incidental to the artful way it is told yet all the great samurai themes are present...honour being paramount.in our fast-food Western culture this timeless tale from feudal Japan is stunningly refreshing!if samurai is your cup of tea this "Sword" belongs in your collection.
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29 of 38 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars . . . SOMBER, SULLEN, SLOW, MORBID, INSCRUTABLE, NOT AT ALL 'THRILLING' AS SAID IN THE PROMO COPY, July 3, 2012
By 
Roy Clark "rclarknv" (Edge of Toiyabe Nat'l Forest, NV) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sword of Desperation (DVD)
I have never seen any action movie where the major action is the protagonist staring blankly ahead seemingly pondering an inscrutable concept for most of his film time. Never have seen such a boring and downer of a samurai/bushido movie, made more despondent by a Hollywood Strings violin music romantically playing mostly throughout. Violins and flutes, played the American way really seemed odd.

There are no thrills here. No adventure, just a Japanese rendition of the adage 'good guys finish last'. This is not an example of Bushido behavior or or beliefs. Rather, it's a turgid tragedy of a historical drama which is waylaid into a display of manic depression, misplaced loyalties, tragic character flaws, which all triumph.

And the desperation is only in the mind of the viewer.
This viewer wanted nothing more than it be over asap.

I am a film collector. I have 160 fine Japanese films (most all bought from Amazon) which I see and re-see often; I've come to really understand and appreciate the intense, strict samurai code heroes and their triumphs over evil.

I also have library shelves with just under 50 tomes by great Japanese writers and scholarly interpretations of their extraordinary culture. Yes, I've
visited Japan.

This is a movie of a sick, evil woman, a psychotic Lord and no justice, no honor, only dark, dismal, sad distortions of a classic, fine system of honor and right behavior. I often disagree with other reviewers; in this case I'm radically far away from five-star reviews. This is the only Japanese movie I've viewed that, start to finish, really appalls me.

I can't fathom the awards which have been touted on the DVD, the statements made in the very misleading description cited in Amazon Editorial Reviews. I can't comment on other reviews.

For me the only desperation was that, a ways into the film, it still dragged on. I'm an Amazon Vine reviewer. I take reviewing seriously. I'll re-visit this product page; if
enough comments question my taste here I'll respond with a list of Japanese films which are radically above this morbid soap opera. I'm really upset that this film has been so mis-represented.

'''''''' ! - That's the Japanese translation of caveat emptor.
(Oops, Amazon doesn't print Japanese characters;
lost was a translation of 'caveat emptor' )
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well done Fujisawa Shuhei adaptation, July 25, 2012
This review is from: Sword of Desperation (DVD)
A film doesn't need to be innovative to be good. Sometimes it is enough to do a straight take on a classic genre, to hit all the beats in perfect rhythm and fluently play a familiar tune. "Sword of Desperation" does just that. In the opening scene when loyal samurai retainer Kanemi Sanzaemon walks up to Lady Renko, the favored concubine of Kanemi's lord Ukyo Tabu, and stabs her in the heart, you know just what you are going get. And that it will be good.

The genre here is author Fujisawa Shuhei (The Bamboo Sword: And Other Samurai Tales), whose work has come to define modern Japanese samurai fiction. Far from any kind of "Kill Bill" action, Fujiwara wrote introspective, melancholy tales that dove deep into the psychology of the rank-and-file soldiers or Edo period Japan. Fujisawa's heroes are not the leaders and great lords of the castle, but stolid, loyal retainers who must fight a constant inner battle between personal feelings and duty to lords who often don't deserve loyalty.

Ever since director Yamada Yoji re-introduced the world to Fujisawa with his samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor) --arguably the finest samurai films since Kurosawa stepped behind the camera--Fujisawa has become the Zane Grey of Japanese samurai fiction. Kurotsuchi Mitsuo directed The Samurai I Loved based on a Fujisawa tale. And now director Hirayama Hideyuki gives us another.

"Sword of Desperation" (Japanese title: "Hisshiken Torisashi" or "The Bird-Catching Desperate Sword") is a by-the-numbers Fujisawa story (It even takes place in Unasaka-han, the fictional province that serves as the background for most of his samurai yarns). All of the familiar tropes are present; two righteous men being slowly moved into a confrontation that neither of them desires. A gloomy man living his life under a death sentence who suddenly finds a reason to live in an unlikely love affair, but whose sense of duty is stronger than his passion. Political corruption at the high levels, and lords who use their retainer's high ideals against them, manipulating them like pieces on a chessboard into battles without honor.

And then of course, there is the "Sword of Desperation" itself. Like Fujisawa's "The Hidden Blade," the title refers to a secret sword technique known by only one man, an indefensible strike that can only be used at the moment of greatest desperation--the moment of explosive death that we spend the entire film waiting for.

Director Hirayama doesn't play around too much with "Sword of Desperation." Fujisawa's tales are, by their nature, intimate affairs, and Hirayama tries to capture that. He adds a few touches of cinematic flair. The mirroring of the opening Noh performance with the final scene worked very well. His use of the flashback device that fades to black-and-white is effective, but not consistent, leading to some confusion about when you are in a flashback.

A strong cast is necessary for this type of film, and fronting "Sword of Desperation" is veteran actor Toyokawa Etsushi (20th Century Boys) as Kanemi Sanzaemon. Kanemi is a tormented man, whose wife's death left him depressed and suicidal, until he saw an honorable out for himself by assassinating the favored yet controlling concubine of his lord, the spoiled, weak-willed Ukyo Tabu. Toyokawa gives Kanemi the gravity and presence necessary for the role, and plays all of the faces of Kanemi from groomed court samurai, to scruffy prisoner and wander, to the demon he eventually becomes. Toyokawa is playing somewhat against type in this film, which is probably helped him win the 2011 Japan Academy Award for this role.

Equally strong is Ikewaki Chizuru as Rio, the niece of Kanemi whose love for her uncle is more than familiar. Kikkawa Koji plays a good opposite as Lord Obiya, the righteous noble whose path sets him directly against Kanemi, even though they should be standing together.

If there is any real weakness to "Sword of Desperation," it is that the film is too by-the-numbers. A straight take on a classic genre can give you a very good film, but not a great one. With his samurai trilogy Yamada Yoji combined Fujisawa's source material with potent and powerful acting and directing, and set the standard for all others to follow. Hirayama just isn't the genius that Yamada was. But it seems strange to fault someone for not being a genius. Being very good is good enough.

A few notes on the DVD: Animeigo still does the best subtitles in the business. I know there will never be issues there. The DVD for Sword of Desperation is bare bones, with only a few trailers and some production notes. But still, a nice release.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars banzai, March 28, 2013
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This review is from: Sword of Desperation (DVD)
Fierce sword fighting, Morality, self-righteousness and poetic justice prevails in this epic film. By the end of the story, all problems are resolved.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars samurai masterpiece, November 29, 2012
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This review is from: Sword of Desperation (DVD)
A masterpiece! What clear, simple storytelling -- it makes you care for the people in it, even as it builds relentlessly toward a climax in which every measured cinematic stroke that went before pays off by creating the deepest emotions in the midst of a paroxysm of bloody slaughter. I love the echoes, in that gory and deeply disturbing final battle scene, of two other great samurai classics: HARIKIRI Harakiri (The Criterion Collection)and SWORD OF DOOM (Daibosatsu Toge)The Sword of Doom (The Criterion Collection). Like those two earlier films, SWORD OF DESPERATION is almost morbidly critical of samurai society; but, unlike them, it is not in the least nihilistic. You are likely to leave the movie feeling uplifted and inspired and loving the simple greatness of ordinary human beings.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sword of desperation, October 18, 2012
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This review is from: Sword of Desperation (DVD)
The movie was well written. There was one place where the movie did a flash back that was a little confusing. But it was a movie that has a real story that is more than a sword fight.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Got to see, October 11, 2012
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This review is from: Sword of Desperation (DVD)
Typical Japanese story of loyalty, deseption, and love unfufilled. Good sword techinic and great ending. A real classic and must own.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A delightful samurai film, June 7, 2012
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This is one of those movies where in it helps the viewer to have some understanding of Japanese culture wherein a samurai would gladly give his life in the service of his daiyamo/lord until he finds out he has been betrayed...
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Sword of Desperation
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