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Review: The Tragedy of Bushido and Only She Knows

Caught the final two screenings of Japan Society’s “Other New Wave” retrospective:

  • The Tragedy of Bushido: Unlike last night’s The Samurai Vagabonds, this is genuine jidaigeki—in fact, the program billed it as the very first samurai movie produced by New Wave movement. Once you get past that initial novelty, however, there’s little in terms of plot and theme to distinguish this bleak, depressing tale of innocent people crushed by corrupt, inflexible, and hypocritical systems of power from its esteemed peers (including Sanjuro, Harakiri, and Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai, to name just a few examples). Still, the conflict between blind obedience and individuality remains a compelling one, and the narrative features some beautifully subversive moments. There are, for instance, no miraculous feats of supernatural swordsmanship to be found; when a minor character confronts five opponents in the opening scene, he’s cut down without much effort or fanfare. The story is also surprisingly direct in its criticism of the political climate of postwar Japan, with the protagonist—a low-ranking youth forced to commit seppuku in order to accompany his recently-deceased lord into the afterlife—serving as an obvious allegory for the country’s “B” and “C” war criminals, common foot soldiers that received harsh prison sentences while their commanding officers escaped serious punishment (a subject memorably tackled by Masaki Kobayashi in The Thick-Walled Room).

  • Only She Knows: This police procedural caught my attention because it stars Chishu Ryu, the favorite leading man of famed auteur Yasujiro Ozu (whose understated, lyrical films epitomize mainstream Japanese cinema), and while I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as “radical,” its emphasis on family drama undeniably defies the usual conventions of the genre. Our heroine is the headstrong daughter of an aging detective that tragically finds herself at the center of one of his cases when, one dark and frigid Christmas Eve, she is assaulted by an elusive serial rapist/murderer. Determined to put the incident behind her, she bottles up her emotions, refusing to cooperate with the investigation. Her mother supports her decision, desperate to protect her privacy and fearful that the strain of the situation might break her; her father, on the other hand, wants her to “get over herself” and come forward before the perp strikes again, confident that she will eventually “bounce back” from the trauma. Meanwhile, her boyfriend (who happens to be her father’s partner on the force) struggles to convince her that his feelings for her haven’t changed, and that he doesn’t view her as “damaged goods”—no matter how much she blames herself for what happened. The result is an unexpectedly nuanced dialectic that doesn’t provide any easy answers—though refreshingly, the victim doesn’t remain neutral for long, playing a satisfyingly active role in bringing her tormentor to justice.

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