Story: Hajime Saito (Koichi Sato) brings his little son to a doctor. At the doctor's home he discovers a photo
of a samurai he shared an important part of his past with. Saito's memories take him back to the year 1868 when he
was a member of the "Shinsengumi", an unit of elite warriors, who had sworn loyalty to the Shogun. The samurai
Kanichiro Yoshimura (Kiichi Nakai) also earns a spot in the Shinsengumi, but Saito hates his guts. In a duel Saito
tries to slay the "Farmer"-Samurai, who left his family and betrayed his clan in order to feed his wife and kids.
However, he has to realize that Yoshimura is an exceptionally well-versed fighter.
Among his comrades Yoshimura has a rather bad reputation, since he is always making an effort to stay alive in the duels he has to fight, which stands in contrast to what the way of a samurai teaches, and because he tries to get some money out of every task he is assigned to. Nonetheless, Saito has to find out that Yoshimura actually knows what loyalty truely means. Thus, the two slowly become friends in a time where samurais are no longer needed and have their last battle ahead of them...
Review: "When the last Sword is drawn" takes place during a time most samurai movies depict, namely 1868, when
the Meiji-Era began. Before it came to this shift of power within the country, which meant that the emporer had the
power in his hands again, the Shogun and his samurai ruled the country. Yojiro Takita's movie shows the last years
of the Tokugawa regime through the eyes of two men, who have to make ends meet in a land where politics are about to
change. One of them, Yoshimura, however, seemingly has no time to care for politics. His loyalty lies with his family
and therefore with money, which he needs for his wife and children not to starve. Yoshimura stands as the movie's
center, and therefore we get to see a dramatic story about a samurai who simply struggles to provide his family
with what it needs, wrapped-up in slow-paced pictures, pepped with some nice fight scenes every now and then.
This focus on the more human aspect of the story adds a lot to "When the last Sword is drawn" and makes it a
moving Chambara-flick of a special kind.
Yojiro Takita, who didn't have much of success with his former works like "Onmyoji", tells his story with lots of flashbacks, which doesn't always makes it easy to follow the events. This is because we get to see Yoshimura's life from two different angles. We get to see his life through the eyes of Chiaki Ono, the doctor we meet at the beginning, a man who once was a student of Yoshimura before he left his clan and became part of the Shinsengumi, and we see things from Hajime Saito's angle. By the way, Saito is a well-known figure that really existed and was captain of an unit of the Shinsengumi. At least to Anime-fans his name should sound familiar, if you watched/read "Rurouni Kenshin".
As already mentioned before, the director doesn't make it easy for us to keep track of things, even the more as the story makes some jumps though time without notice. An alert mind is strongly recommended. Fortunately, the rather slow pacing gives us enough room to take the different threads and link them to one another at the right spots.
No quesion about it, "When the last Sword is drawn" tries to depict the twists and turns during an age in which sword fighter clashed with fire arms, when industrialization made its way into the country, and when civil war, as well as famine plagued the land. However, in fact the film shows all of this just on a side note, and that's a good thing, because the topic has been dealt with in many movies before already. The magic of Yojiro Takita's work lies in the writing of the characters, the actors and the emotional impact of the story. Latter one is based on a novel by Jiro Asada, who already delivered the fundament for the scripts to "Failan" or "Love Letter". This becomes apparent pretty soon as the characters stand as the film's true strength. Yoshimura is a samurai, but the likes you may have never seen before. He is a splendid fighter, yet talks very much at times, and makes himself the laughing stock of many with his greed for money. In general, his character sometimes appears to be quite comical, which also leads to some scenes that are unexpectedly funny, yet, you shouldn't make the mistake and deny him to have the honor code of a samurai.
Yoshimura's character is very complex. It wasn't easy for him to betray his clan as we get to understand later on. He simply did so because it's not the Shogun he really is loyal to, but to his family. And he is willing to make any sacrifice necessary for them. The real personal qualities of Yoshimura are only unfolding slowly before us, so that we don't just learn to respect him, but even start to admire him later on. That's also how you can explain why even a man like Saito, a former enemy, eventually becomes a friend. In Yoshimura there is simply something shiningly good, a light that doesn't even get extinguished by the fact that this samurai also leaves some dead behind on his way. When we see him with his family and how selflessly he cares for his comrades, then even Saito has to realize that something "pure" is to be found within Yoshimura's soul. Kiichi Nakai ("Love Letter", "Warriors of Heaven and Earth") does an excellent job with his portrayal of this multi-layered character, but he sometimes is outshined by Koichi Sato ("Infection", "Aegis") as Saito. Saito is arrogant, sometimes seems conscienceless, but later we also learn more about his softer side, even though he always knows how to hide it behind a hard shell.
The film is also carried by some beautiful pictures. The scene on the snow-covered brigde at night, when Yoshimura bids farewell to his daughter, is really an especially memorable one. But the Japanese gardens, the buildings etc. are all captured by nice pictures, too. Every now and then the serene pacing is picking up thanks to some good and realistically depicted sword fights, which sometimes can also be unexpectedly bloody. Nevertheless, "When the last Sword is drawn" basically is a drama that works with its characters. This is also the reason why the fate of Yoshimura and Saito is really something we care about. Saito's tragic love story with a geisha, played by Miki Nakatani ("Memories of Matsuko"), bestows something warm and natural on Saito's character, while Yoshimura's family is also sketched very well, so that the film's last 30 minutes may move you to tears.
Nevertheless, at the end, and also on other ocassions, one certain weak point sticks out. Sometimes the film is a bit overdramatic. Yoshimura's last scene mainly manages to be not as cheesy as it could have become thanks to Kiichi Nakai's great acting. Maybe this is also partly fault of Joe Hisaishi's soundtrack, which seems just too prominent for some of the dramatic moments. However, I also have to stress that Hisaishi's soundtrack as a whole really is an enrichment to the movie. Moreover, "When the last Sword is drawn" can move you despite some overdramatic scenes. Personally, I like "Twilight Samurai" a lot more, and you can also criticize that "When the last Sword is drawn" could have been a lot more consistent, and that some of the flashbacks seem a bit superfluous, but as a drama revolving around samurais, honor and "being human", Yojiro Takita's work truely radiates its own undeniable kind of magic.