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Review: Gonza the Spearman

The Tokugawa Era. A time of peace. Bored samurai, unable to prove their honor in combat, instead follow the Way of Tea to climb the social ladder. One such warrior, Gonza Sasano–immortalized in songs for his unparalleled handsomeness rather than his skill with the spear–hopes to win a coveted position in his clan by studying the scrolls of a renowned tea master, and agrees to marry the man’s eldest daughter to return the favor. He neglects to mention that he’s already exchanged vows with another woman–and even shared a bed with her.

Thus begins Gonza’s slow march toward self-destruction. Through a tragic series of misunderstandings, he finds himself on the run with the tea master’s wife, accused of adultery by a jealous rival. As bushido demands blood, the cuckolded husband reluctantly embarks on a journey to slay the two "lovers" and salvage his reputation–and Gonza eagerly awaits his death, the end of his shame.

This story of men and women doomed by the cruel code of the samurai is more than a little familiar, but Masahiro Shinoda tells it effectively enough to make it feel fresh. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (also responsible for the visuals in Rashomon, Floating Weeds, and my favorite blind swordsman adventure, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold) certainly helps: his deep focus compositions, vibrant colors, and graceful camera movements almost invite the viewer to step through the screen and interact with the characters (like 3-D without the glasses), creating a richer, more compelling cinematic experience–and proving once more that a story’s quality depends powerfully on how well it is told.

[Originally written August 27, 2012.]

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