Times change, and men must change with them or they must die. When Japan was forced to open up to the rest of the world after centuries of isolation, its ancient order of samurai with their feudal lords and subjugated peasantry was abandoned in favour of a more Western looking democratic solution to social stratification. Suddenly the entirety of a man’s life was rendered nil – no more lords to serve, a man must his make his own way now. However, for some, old wounds continue to fester, making it impossible for them to embrace this entirely new way of thinking.
Kingo is one such man who finds himself frustrated by history in Setsuro Wakamatsu’s adaptation of a novel by Jiro Asada, Snow on the Blades (柘榴坂の仇討, Zakurozaka no Adauchi). In 1860 (as we count it) he married a beautiful young woman and received a promotion as the bodyguard for his lord, Ii Naosuke. However, one fateful day his progressive master is ambushed by a rival clan making a pretence of arriving with a petition that needs to be heard. Kingo and his men fail in protecting their lord and though many of the survivors commit suicide in shame, Kingo is charged with finding the remaining perpetrators and exacting his revenge. His quest spans almost fifteen years of turbulent Meiji era history as he trudges all over Japan looking for rumours of men who no longer quite exist all the while a lonely wife waits for him at home, becoming the sole breadwinner for this new life of forced “equality”.
The man Kingo has been looking for, Naokichi, is also living an unfulfilling life, hiding from retribution but also from himself and his own remorse over the deeds of a young man whom he no longer recognises. He has the possibility of building a new life with a local widow and her sweet little daughter who’s taken a liking to him, but like Kingo he’s held frozen by the old ways and can’t quite allow himself to bring a woman and child into his life of shame and fear.
Both men have been left behind by history. Kingo is the more obvious relic with his anachronistic top knot and old fashioned Japanese dress but Naokichi is also unable to move forward until he faces his past. For much of the running time Snow on the Blades plays out like a conventional mystery or revenge tale with Kingo on the road trying to track down those who he believes wronged his master in an attempt to atone for his failures through vengeance, but all that awaits him at the end of his journey is a lonely grave. The problem is, he liked his lord who was good and progressive man, filled with kindness and poetic sentiments. His regret over not being able to save him is more than failed duty, it is also personal grief and guilt though he finds little comfort in pursing those he believes to responsible.
Having spent thirteen years striving for something Kingo suddenly finds himself adapting to the times and beginning to believe perhaps this isn’t what his lord would have wanted anyway. Both men, confronted by each other and by several different kinds of history, are forced to face themselves as they are now and as they were then and assess what all of these codes and honour systems are really worth. Snow on the Blades is often beautifully photographed and filled with scenes as lovely as any woodblock painting but, it has to be said, somewhat dull as its central psychological dramas fail to ignite. Impressive production values and universally strong performances from its high profile cast lift the film above its fairly generic narrative but can’t quite save it from its rather trite message and run of the mill period drama aesthetic.
The assassination at Sakuradamon or Sakuradamon Incident is a real historical event in which the Japanese Chief Minister Ii Naosuke was murdered by ronin samurai working for the Mito clan outside the Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle in 1860. Ii Naosuke was a leading proponent of opening up to foreign powers (albeit as a sort of defense mechanism) but made an enemy of just about everyone through his tyrranical actions and was a very unpopular figure at the time of his death though his image has now been somewhat rehabilitated.