Mibu Gishi den (When the Last Sword is Drawn) (2003)
Director: Yojiro Takita.
Starring: Kiichi Nakai (Kanichiro Yoshimura), Koichi Sato (Hajime Saito), Yui Natsukawa (Shizu /Mitsu), Takehiro Murata (Chiaki Ono), Miki Nakatani (Nui), Yuji Miyake (Jiroemon Ohno).
a poor samurai joins the Shinsengumi under economic duress in last days of the shogunate
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
City of Tokyo, Winter 1899. Chiaki Ono, M.D., and his wife are packing up because they are closing the Ono Clinic and moving to a new location. An older man named Saito arrives at the clinic carrying his grandson who has a high fever. He knocks on the door and they let him and his grandson in. While waiting for his grandson, Saito sees a picture of a samurai. It is a picture of Kanichiro Yoshimura, "The man I hated the most," says Saito "when the Shogun fell." Yoshimura and Saito were known as the Wolves of Mibu.
Flashback. 1863. A newly chosen unit, the Shinsengumi, is formed and quartered in Kyoto's Mibu area. It is composed of ronin (masterless samurai). Their job is to keep the peace as the Shogun's power ebbed. The lieutenant of the unit was Toshizo Hijkata. Yoshimura is of the Oshu clan from Morioka. He was trained at the North Star One-Sword School, the same school where Ito Nagkura was trained. Nagkura is one of the best swordsmen in the Shinsengumi. To prove himself Yoshimura has to fight a match. He does so and the match is called a draw. For this Yoshimura is made an instructor for the organization. The head man of the school ,Kondo, says that Sanjuro Tani's younger brother Masatake will be adopted into the Kondo family. This means that the Tennen Sword School now will have an heir. It is said that Kondo was a snob. He passed over Okita the natural choice to succeed him.
Saito disapproves of Yoshimura. "An awful country samurai", he calls him. He dislikes him because he brags about his home and family. Saito says: "I decided I'd kill this man." Yoshimura walks him home. Along the way Saito stops in a wide open area. He tells Yoshimura: "I just don't like you." He then takes out his sword and tries to kill Yoshimura. Yoshimura responds to the aggression by saying: "I won't allow that. I won't die." Seeing that Yoshimura is very good with a sword, Saito tells him: "I'm not serious. I just wanted to test you."
Yoshimura had to "discipline" a samurai who refused an order to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). For this he asks for more money to buy a new sword for his was nicked. His partner refuses to take any money. So Yoshimura not only takes his regular pay and the extra money for the sword, but also grabs the money that his partner refused to take. Actions like this have his fellow samurai asking: "What kind of samurai is that?" Saito shakes his head thinking that Yoshimura is really something. He is a miser squirreling away all the money he can get his hands on.
Back to the present. Dr. Ono says that Yoshimura was his teacher at Morioka, which is 140 leagues from Edo (today's Tokyo). Yoshimura was a low-ranking samurai known for his swordsmanship. His wife was named Shizu and his daughter was named Mitsu. Yoshimura could barely keep his family fed, but the family seemed happy. Suddenly Yoshimura left the clan, leaving his family behind. The clan considered him almost a traitor. His son was taunted at school. Chiaki Ono himself chased the bullies away. The rest of the Yoshimura family was driven from the clan.
Flashback. Yoshimura is happy with his pay in the Shinsengumi. He sends the money to his family back home. His son writes him to say that he would like to come to Kyoto to be a samurai with him. At that time Morioka suffered a harsh famine. Chiaki Ono runs in Yoshimura's son, but the son runs away from Chiaki.
The Shinsengumi attack another group. In the attack Sanjuro Tani acts in a cowardly way. Saito badly wounds an enemy and then sees Sanjuro kill the helpless man. Saito is not pleased at the sight. The next morning Sanjuro's. body is found in front of the Gion shrine. Yoshimura carefully examines the body. He deduces from the stab wounds that the stabber is left-handed. Kondo and his associates wonder who killed Sanjuro. One of the men says that Sanjuro had been getting above himself and the men did not like it. Yoshimura confronts Saito with the forensic facts about the wounds on Sanjuro's body. He implies that he knows the murderer is Saito. Yoshimura adds that the rules strictly forbid personal vendettas. Saito warns Yoshimura to keep out of his way. But all Yoshimura wants is some money from Saito to keep his mouth shut. Saito gives him money, but drops it on the floor in front of Yoshimura. The money-grubber thanks Saito but Saito tells him that he does not want his thanks. Yoshimura meets the beautiful woman consorting with Saito. Saito tells him that he does not like beautiful women. Yoshimura thinks he has seen the woman before and asks her if she is from his home town of Oshu. Yes, she is. She was sold to a brothel and Saito bought her contract.
Seeing the woman from Oshu Yoshimura thinks about his meeting and falling in love with his future wife Shizu. He first saw her at the summer festival. His parents, however, were opposed to the marriage. They suggested that he make Shizu his concubine rather than his wife. Shizu is supposed to marry a man she does not want to marry. She runs away to Yoshimura. She falls into his arms and tells him that she wants to be with him. She adds: "I want to marry you." A man tells Yoshimura that he has to give the girl back. But Yoshimura says: "She will be my wife." He then tells Shizu: "From this day on you are my wife."
Kondo tells the men of the Shinsengumi that they are to be made direct retainers of the Tokugawa Shogun. They will be hatamoto. Yoshimura asks about the money they will be paid and all the samurai in the room laugh. Yoshimura is very pleased when he hears the amount he will be getting and he thanks everyone. Out with some of his fellow samurai, Yoshimura declines to have his photo taken. Then one of the samurai says that he will pay for the photo and Yoshimura quickly agrees. He has his picture taken (the one owned later by Dr. Ono).
Back to the present. Saito asks Dr. Ono about where he will be moving his clinic. They are moving to Manchuria, China.
Flashback. Then the Shinsengumi becomes split into two factions as Japan does too. There were those who backed the emperor and those who backed the Tokugawa Shogun. This was the tide that the Shinsengumi could not weather. Those Shinsengumi supporting the emperor, led by Ito, ask Saito and Yoshimura to join them. Saito agrees to go with them, but Yoshimura declines. And this despite the fact that as one of the Imperial Guard, Yoshimura would be paid twice what he is currently paid. Saito is surprised that Yoshimura turned down the extra money.
But Saito going over to the forces of the emperor was an act. He was really an informer for Kondo and Hijikata. Saito gathers some information, gives a copy of the information to his girlfriend, Miss Nui, and she delivers it to Yoshimura, who in turn delivers it to Kando. Kando wants Ito killed. Kando does not kill Ito, but he kills the next in command and now has to hide out. He gives some money to his girlfriend and tells her to hide out too. She gives him back the money and tells him to make love to her instead. Saito complies.
The cry goes out that Ryoma Sakamoto has been killed. Yoshimura pays a visit to Miss Nui's house but finds that she has committed suicide.
A flashback in a flashback. Yoshimura calls out to Shizu. She is trying to kill herself by drowning in the river. Yoshimura grabs her, but she shouts: "Let me die!" Her husband tells her: "You can't do this!" She responds: "Let me die and use me for food." From the shore the son yells: "Dad, don't be mad at mom." Yoshimura tells Shizu that he will never let the family fall so far into poverty that she would have to resort to suicide. He decides to go to Kyoto to earn some money. To do so he has to abandon his clan. Yoshimura has to say a painful good-bye to his family.
Back to the main flashback. Yoshimura tells Saito that Miss Nui killed herself. He also tells Saito that he arranged the funeral for her. Saito only says: "Mind your own business."
The Shinsengumi surround Ito and some of his men. Yoshimura kills one of Ito's men who calls him a money grubber and a mercenary. Ito is also killed. Saito remarks that it was all down hill from there. The Shogun resigned, the Emperor returned to power, Okito was dying of tuberculosis and Kondo was shot by a man from the Ito faction. The Shinsengumi then decided to join the fight against the southwest clans. Squire Ono (Dr. Ono's father) sees Yoshimura moving out to fight with the Shinsengumi. In battle many of the Shinsengumi are killed by cannon fire and rifles. Saito says the fight was ludicrous; the outcome of swords against guns was a foregone conclusion. The day of the sword was already far in the past.
Nanbu Clan Estate, Osaka. The Shogun's forces are retreating. The Shinsengumi decide to play their last card. The outcome once again was the same as the first battle. Afterwards, Yoshimura gives the last rice ball to Saito. When Saito learns that Yoshimura gave him the last rice ball without eating it himself, he becomes very mad. Saito decides that they will die right here. He tells Yoshimura to "get out of here." But Yoshimura tells him that he is a Nanbu samurai and as such he will be first in battle: "I will do my duty." Yoshimura had now become a true samurai, not just a man looking for more money.
The last of the Shinsengumi ambush the soldiers and kill many of them. They start to advance as the soldiers retreat, but are stopped by blasts from the artillery. An officer rides up to the Shinsengumi and tells them: "We are the Imperial Army! Withdraw your soldiers! There will be no mercy for rebels!" The Shinsengumi start to retreat, but not Yoshimura. Saito gets badly wounded but Yoshimura heads straight into the blaze of rifle fire.
Back to the present. It dawns on grandfather Saito that Dr. Ono knew Yoshimura and he asks him about this. He says that he assumes that Yoshimura died at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi. Dr. Ono responds with a "No." Yoshimura did not die there. Then the doctor begins a tale of his father and Yoshimura.
Flashback His father was put in charge of the clan's forces. He advised that the clan stay absolutely neutral between the forces of the Emperor and the Shogun. No aide is to be given any wounded soldier from either side. Then that evening a badly wounded Yoshimura shows up at his clan's compound. This places Ono is a tough situation. He breaks his own rule and tells his men to bring Yoshimura in. But he snaps: "Why did he have to come now?" Yoshimura tells him that he wants to return home. Ono says that he can't ask the clan to take him back. The situation becomes even tougher for Ono when the Emperor's forces shout that everyone must report all rebel soldiers or the entire clan will be punished. Ono finally tells Yoshimura that he is a disgrace and that he should kill himself.
Yoshimura talks with servant Sasuke. Sasuke asks Yoshimura why he fought at that last battle? "Out of duty" is the answer. He adds: "But I'm not dead yet." He is going back to Morioka to see his family. Oko returns to Yoshimura and tells him that he cannot sacrifice the entire clan for him. Again he tells him to commit suicide. Ono's son, the future Dr. Ono, asks his father to please help Yoshimura. Ono finally decides to give Yoshimura some food in the form of rice balls.
Ono comes into see Yoshimura and finds him dead. The man cries over the body of his dead friend. He had committed suicide. The future Dr. Ono and Sasuke deliver Yoshimura's effects to his family. All the family start crying.
After this event, Ono changed. He led the clan's troops against he southwestern forces. And he was killed in battle.
Yoshimura's son sees the future Dr. Ono. He tells him he is going to Hakodate to fight at the fort there. His sister Mitsu does not want him to go and she cries. And sure enough Yoshimura's son dies at the Battle of Hakodate. Later the future Dr. Ono marries Mitsu.
Back to the present. Mitsu brings Saito's grandson back to him. The fever has broken and he will be alright now. Saito thanks the doctor and his wife and leaves.
Good movie. But I've got a problem. I just can't sympathize with the samurai code of the Japanese. The director in the comments sections on the DVD says that anyone would cry at the end. Sorry, I thought Yoshimura was crazy to fight on in a now hopeless cause. The movie sees Yoshimura maturing and becoming a true samurai rather than just a mercenary. But I'm more concerned with the man's poor family than his decision to do the "honorable" thing and fight on hopelessly. The samurai way of thinking is a military and militant way to look at the world. It may have been applicable once in the constantly fighting world of medieval Japan, but since that world was hell, the code from hell is no good for decent people in a more decent world. And in World War II the Japanese would pay dearly for their military approach to life. Yes, I like the "mercenary" Yoshimura that cared more for his family's welfare than dying in a military cause. That World War II attitude that every Japanese soldier was to fight to the death of the last man is just a bunch of bull that just led to more unnecessary cruelty and death.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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