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Wellspring presents
When the Last Sword Is Drawn (2003)

Saito: I'm only alive because no one will kill me.
Yoshimura: I'm different. I kill because I don't want to die.

- Koichi Sato, Kiichi Nakai

Review By: Jeff Wilson   
Published: June 15, 2006

Stars: Kiichi Nakai, Koichi Sato, Miki Nakitani, Yui Natsukawa, Yuji Miyake
Director: Yojiro Takita

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for violence, language
Run Time: 02h:17m:23s
Release Date: December 27, 2005
UPC: 720917547527
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B C+C+B C+

DVD Review

When the Last Sword is Drawn is a samurai film focusing less on the martial aspects of the samurai life, instead aiming its lens at the inner life of the warrior. Based on a popular historical novel by Jiro Asada, director Yojiro Takita has fashioned a thoughtful if overlong drama that remains absorbing until the end, when some judicious editing would have helped.

Set during the final days of the Tokugawa shogunate (the late 1860s), the story looks at the down at heel samurai Kanichiro Yoshimura (Kiichi Nakai). Viewed through flashbacks, Yoshimura's career is viewed in light of the events which led him to his eventual fate, as well as the effect he had on those around him. Yoshimura begins as a newcomer to the Shinsengumi (a prestigious police force of sorts), having already committed a social crime of sorts in abandoning his clan. His reasons for doing so become clearer as time passes, but his hick exterior hides a deadly swordsman and an honorable warrior. His chief foil in dramatic terms is Hajime Saito (Koichi Sato), a cynical hardcase who would welcome death, if anyone were good enough to kill him. Yoshimura on the hand fears death, cultivating his skills in order to remain alive.

Yoshimura earns some scorn from his fellow Shinsengumi thanks to his habit of wheedling money out of every possible situation, even sinking to a little casual blackmail. It of course turns out that he is hoarding the cash to support his family, and his true character is more noble than any of the other samurai in the group, a character trait you might find either admirable, foolish, or both when one sees where it leads Yoshimura. The film's secondary storyline revolves around Saito, who sees his cynical worldview molded into something more positive by the chipper Yoshimura's dedication and valor. Saito's character arc was more interesting to me than Yoshimura's, as the latter doesn't really change so much as we see him revealed for who he really is.

The film keeps the viewer involved by weaving its "modern" scenes with flashbacks of Yoshimura's career, as well as juggling multiple characters. Spoliers abound here, so jump ahead if that bothers you. The film bogs down during its final half hour, when the story grinds to a halt while we wait for Yohsimura to die after a suicidal solo charge against the Emperor's troops. The scene is intended to be tremendously moving, but it grows tiresome after a couple minutes. Running as it does on samurai character logic rather than common sense, it can be a bit aggravating to modern Western viewers, who won't appreciate the seeming stupidity of a guy who earlier wanted to live no matter what, missed his family to the point of tears, and sacrificed his honor for them. Yoshimura's crazy charge may have solidified his samurai credentials, but it goes against what we've previously seen from him. He tells a breakaway group of Shinsengumi that he won't betray yet another clan, but in the clearly mercenary world the movie depicts, such honor as practiced by Yoshimura is an outdated, dangerous idea, at least in terms of self-preservation. Yoshimura's act has the knock-on effect of essentially sentencing his son to death as well, as he runs off to die in a no-win battle in order to do dad proud. It's insane, and there's nothing worth celebrating about it.

When the Last Sword is Drawn turns out to be a conservative film in many regards, hearkening back to a time when honor was more important than life, even if those receiving the benefits of that devotion don't apparently deserve it. Saito, who in real life went on the work for the police forces, obviously understood the the dubious nature of dying for a cause better than our hero did.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: For a film of such recent vintage, the anamorphic transfer is only okay, with some scenes showing a fair amount of what looks like digital noise. I didn't find it overly disruptive to the viewing experience, but others may feel differently. The film is transferred in its original ratio of 1.85:1. Some of the video problems could arise from this possibly being a PAL transfer converted to NTSC; the IMDB lists a 143 minute running time, and the film runs 137 minutes on this disc, which would fit the 4% speedup exactly.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Japaneseno

Audio Transfer Review: A solid 2.0 surround track does the job, with a solid mix, showing off Joe Hisaishi's melodic score to good effect.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Behind the scenes footage
  2. Interview segments
Extras Review: Two main sets of extras are here, each set viewable as a set or individually. First up is a behind the scenes grouping (00h:37m:00s), which are relatively bland, given that these four segments basically are footage of the filming without any other elaboration. If you like seeing the act of filmmaking in process, you'll enjoy this. The other set is more interesting, comprised as it is of interviews with the principals involved. First is director Takita (00h:10m:14s), followed by Sato (00h:06m:18s), Nakai (00h:06m:45s), and novelist Jiro Akada (00h:13m:03s). These were all reasonably interesting and worth looking at for fans of the film. The theatrical trailer is also presented, albeit in 4:3 letterbox.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

While by no means a classic, When the Last Sword is Drawn remains decent entertainment with interesting enough characters and an involving story. The DVD looks okay, and adds some quality interview material as an extra.


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