“Even with 100 plans and 100 ideas, we cannot defeat the march of progress” a progressive samurai admits, well aware that he’s witnessing the end of his era while knowing that the “thrilling future” that lies ahead will have no place for him. Adapted from the novel by Ryotaro Shiba, The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai (峠 最後のサムライ, Toge: Saigo no Samurai) is inspired by the life of Kawai Tsugunosuke, known as the “Last Samurai” for his steadfast embodiment of the samurai ideal during the chaos of the Bakumatsu and subsequent Boshin War.
As the opening voiceover from Tsugunosuke’s wife Osuga (Takako Matsu) explains, the Tokugawa Shogunate had ruled Japan for close to 300 years after bringing the warring states era to an end following the Battle of Sekigahara, placing the nation into a period of enforced isolation which by the 1850s was beginning to crack while resentment towards the Tokugawa continued to grow over their handling of access to foreign trade. In 1867, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (Masahiro Higashide) effectively relinquished his monopoly on power and restored ultimate authority to the emperor (the “Meiji Restoration”). Yet if he hoped his decision would both restore peace and allow the Tokugawa to maintain political influence he was quite mistaken. In the immediate wake of this political earthquake the nation became polarised between those in favour of imperial rule and those who remained loyal to the Shogunate.
The chief retainer in Nagaoka, Tsugunosuke (Koji Yakusho) finds himself in an impossible position caught between the forces of East and West and essentially unable to pick a side because of the demands of samurai loyalty. Fearing another war would prove disastrous, he chooses neutrality certain that the present conflict cannot be resolved militarily and requires a political solution. To this effect he attempts to petition a delegation from the Western, pro-emperor, pro-modernisation army but his pleas fall on deaf ears and lead only to a rebuke that he is a coward and a traitor. Like any good leader, however, Tsugunosuke has also been preparing for the worst, buying a gatling gun from foreign dealers in order to boost his meagre man power eventually realising they have no other option than to go war
The irony is that Tsugunosuke tacitly supports imperial rule but cannot say so because his clan is closely affiliated with the Tokugawa. He is well aware that his era has come to a close and that he will not live to see the new Japan, knowing that he is man of the old world and cannot progress into the classless society he is certain is coming. For all that he seems to be excited by the promises of revolution, encouraging the son of a friend to take advantage of the freedoms of a new era while dreaming of foreign travel and advocating for “liberty and rights” along with universal education in the hope of building of a better society.
Yet for himself he cannot let go of samurai ideals, knowing he must fight a pointless war in which he does not believe because honour dictates it. “If it shows future generations what we samurai truly stood for then this battle will have been worthwhile” he tells a friend, fearful of a future dominated by the clans of Satsuma and Choshu. “Your samurai spirit will encourage countless others” another retainer tells him, “you are our ideal”, touched by his stoicism and grace even in defeat as he takes sole responsibility for the failure of their military campaign caused in part by the betrayal of a defecting ally. “This warriors’ way shall die with me” he cheerfully tells a servant, advising him to become a merchant and travel abroad to seize the “thrilling future” which lies ahead of him.
A martyr to his age, Tsugunosuke is the last of the samurai stoically defending a lofty ideal in an acknowledgement that he does not belong in the new society and must sacrifice himself in order to bring it about. An homage to classic samurai cinema from former Akira Kurosawa AD Takashi Koizumi, who even throws in the odd screen wipe, featuring cameos from golden age stars Tatsuya Nakadai and Kyoko Kagawa, The Pass is about the passage from one era to the next taking as its hero a closet revolutionary and walking embodiment of the idealised samurai who chooses unity and shared vision over conflict in the creation of a better world he does not intend to live to see.
The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai screens on Aug. 21 and Sept. 1 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.
Original trailer (English subtitles)