Saturday, December 19, 2009


You get a real sense of how foreign foreign cultures can be in the early goings of this film. Hanzo, an angsty, portly constable in the Tokugawa shogunate, has a lengthy exchange with his superior about the character of torture. "We ourselves should know the pains of the criminals we torture," he explains, in order to posit the point at which too much pain causes sensory overload and never get there. So torture and pain can be prolonged indefinitely! And he says this while kneeling on a set of spikes with weights balanced on his hamstrings. This is our hero.

The first in a jidaigeki trilogy, SWORD OF JUSTICE stars Shintaro Katsu of ZATOICHI fame as the titular officer/sadomasochist. The plot, in which Hanzo foils a cabal of corrupt officials and criminal scum, doesn't seem too removed from your garden-variety Bronson movie—this IS essentially a cop actioneer with swordplay instead of gunplay, mostly—but some elements of the cop-movie template get stretched to absurdity here. It's important to establish that the hero is tough, but...the torture scene I mentioned isn't the last time mortification puts in an appearance. There's also a jaw-dropping scene in which Hanzo bastes his little razor in hot water, tenderizes it with a stick, then makes love to a bag of raw rice. And, lest you think that this is strictly professional development, dialogue sets you straight: "it seems to erect when in pain". WOW.

Apparently, this is a winning formula for seduction, as Hanzo hauls (literally) two women back to his house for interrogation and interrogates them with his penis. They're unwilling at first, but quickly relent and say improbable things like, "You're so virile!" Again, this is an extrapolation of a standard motif in this cinema, in which the Chick hates the Hero, but comes around after a demonstration of power. But it's especially straightforward and kinda ugly here.

All of which might make you think that this is a grindhouse exercise, in which the "hero" is repellent and you're supposed to feel repulsed at the grime and gross behavior. But the only time Hanzo is chastised in the film is when he bucks authority by refusing to give up his devotion to the law. Then again, this was made in the seventies and things were much different then. Still...

All of this unfolds in beautifully composed and deliberately filmed scenes, as per usual for Japanese cinema, even at its basest. Director Kenji Misumi really knew his stuff and the striking look of the film makes its seemier sides go down more easily. It's also well-acted, with Katsu doing an especially fine job as the stern, psychotic Razor. Worth a watch, but you might wish to shower afterwards.

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