A Cruel Story.
This is a tale of the Shinsengumi, a band of samurais in Kyoto that are steeped in lore and the subject of many films. They formed and became prominent as the Tokugawa period was swiftly decaying and their goal was to preserve the Tokugawa government and keep order in Kyoto at any cost.
The Shinsengumi’s have been portrayed across the full spectrum of images from slapstick chumps (some would say) as in the 2004 NHK series to a cruel & barbaric group of ruthless bloodthirsty samurai. A Cruel Story depicts the group as uncivilized & dirty, some members have even gone insane. This film is unlike many previous versions where directors try to make the group more palatable by sanitizing their image sometimes a little but mostly a lot.
The players include Kondo a man that assassinated the group’s founder Serizawa to become its leader and the extremely vicious homosexual Hijikata, who was the group’s chief assassin and summarily resolved internal disputes with his sword rather than with words. One member had the audacity to question the group’s humanity that cost him a half-dozen sword cuts so he could bleed to an agonizing death.
The film follows Enami, who initially idolizes the band and wants to join their ranks so much that he attempts seppuku to prove his worthiness. He is a hick from the sticks who dreams of becoming a true samurai, but is initially innocent of the barbaric ways the group uses to enforce its policies and carry out its mandate.
Enami is mortified by his initial taste of the Shinsengumi’s punishing brutality and begins to vomit out of fear and disgust. However, he is quickly seduced by the dark side and rapidly volunteers to behead a member showing us that one’s fall from grace can be fast and furious. Nevertheless, there is more than the regression of man to primal violence, as we discover Enami is Serizawa’s nephew, Serizawa having been the past (and assassinated) leader of Shinsengumi. He wants revenge against Kondo Isami, his uncle’s killer.
For the mid 1960’s this was one of the bloodiest black and white films of its time and is a powerful indictment of the brutality going on in Japan in the name of keeping the West out of the country. A motion picture you should not miss.