The jidaigeki genre has become increasingly rare in recent years, even in its native country. Revisionist, postmodern, cynical twists on the established formula emerge every so often (usually from the likes of Takashi Miike), but traditional, earnest, “classic” period dramas are borderline extinct. While The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai (which just held its New York premiere via the Japan Cuts film festival) isn’t nearly spectacular enough to be considered a "comeback," it's a solidly decent effort—which is preferable to not existing at all, I suppose.
The movie’s greatest strength lies in its screenplay; its noticeable overreliance on voiceover narration and title cards to convey the plot notwithstanding, the story is exquisitely crafted and consistently compelling. The conflict revolves around a series of deliciously ironic contradictions. In order to preserve the “status quo” and combat the encroachment of Western “foreign policy,” the shogun restores power to the imperial court—which, consequently, results in major political upheavals, culminating in the very civil war that he’d hoped to avoid. The protagonist, Chief Retainer Tsuginosuke Kawai of Nagaoka, advocates for peace and independence through diplomacy and mediation—but he also subscribes to the philosophy of “perpetual readiness,” preemptively purchasing a Gatling gun to bolster his small domain’s defenses. Finally, although Kawai is a devoted samurai and a strict adherent to the code of bushido, he recognizes that the “way of the warrior” will soon be obsolete, and therefore encourages his subordinates to become artists, educators, and merchants—occupations that will allow them to more easily navigate the impending era of “progress.”
Unfortunately, Takashi Koizumi’s direction fails to elevate the dense subject matter. Unlike Akira Kurosawa (his mentor and frequent collaborator), his camerawork is predominantly static (indeed, it could be accurately described as “inert”), and his compositions seldom get more complex than basic “shot/reverse shot.” There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with such stylistic minimalism, but this breed of historical epic is built on a foundation of cinematic flamboyance—making the absence thereof feel particularly glaring.
Ultimately, The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai resembles its hero: it straddles a fence without leaning to one side or the other, neither remarkably good nor irredeemably terrible. It simply is—adequate, competent, and serviceable.