What would you do for your company?
The system of vassal and lord is one that has persisted through out all of human history, despite all attempts political, religious and moral to change it. The one below is expected to suppress his personal desires in order to support the one above. The worker toils long hours so that the boss may take a luxury vacation. Over the years the lords have come up with various philosophies and codes to make it seem as if this suffering and repression is somehow natural, even noble, ensuring that the vassal would willingly sacrifice for the lord’s pleasure.
One of the harshest and most unforgiving versions of these codes appeared in feudal Japan. It was known as bushido, the way of the samurai.
The film opens when a young man (Nakamura Kinosuke from Shogun’s Samurai, Goyokin)) is attending to his dying fiancé (Mita Yoshiko, Samaritan Zatoichi) at a hospital, who appears to have attempted suicide. Standing by her bedside, the man remembers a group of diaries that he read when his mother passed away, detailing the lives of his ancestors, all of whom were from the aristocratic samurai class and followed the code of bushido. He slowly goes through all of their horrible lives, living them over one-by-one, and watching how each of them sacrificed something precious and worthwhile all in the name of “bushido,” of the honor of subservience to a lord.
Nakamura plays the role of all of his ancestors, seven in total beginning with the grizzled samurai Jirozaemon who takes his own life in order to “follow his lord” to death. Jirozaemon swears that not only will he give his life for his Lord Hori, but all successive generations of his family will live to serve the Hori families whims. From Jirozaemon, with each generation this oath is fulfilled at greater and greater personal sacrifice. A father is asked to dress up his underage daughter as a “living doll” to be presented as a bribe to a senior official. A young samurai catches the eye of his lord, who demands his use for homosexual pleasure, then has the samurai castrated when the he dares to fall in love with a woman. Throughout the years these horrors are repeated, from samurai guard commanded to execute an innocent man with a saw, to WWII kamikaze pilot. Slowly, the man realizes how little things he changed, and that he too offered up his fiancé to his “lord” in no less cruel a manner than his ancestors before him. .
The first of only two Japanese films to win the prestigious Golden Bear award from the Berlin Film Festival (“Bushido” in 1963, and the second being Miyazaki’s Spirited Away in 2002.), “Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai” is director Imai Tadashi’s testament to the inherent unfairness of the ancient samurai code that was still being honored in Japan. At a time when Japanese workers were being told to “be like the samurai” and to give their entire lives to the company for which they worked, Imai held up a mirror to the country and asked those same workers exactly what were they being asked to sacrifice and for whom. The film was also a reaction to the propaganda films Imai was forced to make during WWII, showing the honor of personal sacrifice and how Japanese should be expected to give everything to ensure the goals of their leaders.
While there are plenty of excellent actors on display, Nakamura is the real superstar in “Bushido,” winning the Japanese Best Actor award for his performance. He is a true chameleon as he switches effortlessly from ancient warrior to beautiful catamite youth. Even without Imai’s powerhouse directing Nakamura’s performance is worth the price of admission.
Animeigo has put together their usual excellent package for the release of such an important film. Probably my favorite of the extras available was an essay by samurai scholar Randy Schadel discussing the truth behind bushido, and how it was essentially an invented code enforced on the peasants but followed by few of the aristocracy themselves. Also included are several pages of liner notes explaining the intricacies of the film and some of the more specific cultural notes. Unfortunately, these extras are only included in digital form on the DVD and are therefore somewhat hard to read, but they can easily be printed off from the Animeigo website.