Tai Kato’s Bakumatsu zankoku monogatari goes by multiple translated titles such as The Executioners and various permutations on Brutal/Cruel Story/Tale of the Shogunate’s Downfall/at the End of the Tokugawa Era/Shogunate. In this bundle of terms and referents are numerous evocations – institutionalized murder, mercilessness, the degradation that typifies a historical era’s demise, a retrospective view and an exemplum account. Made by Toei as a no frills genre picture, Tai Kato offers a daringly grim view of Japanese militarism and the radical lengths such top-down pressures drive individuals toward.
Hashizo Okawa, a handsomely baby-faced actor departing from more commercially agreeable fare, plays Enami, a naïve and unskilled samurai looking to join the Shinsengumi. During the mid- to late-1860s, the Shinsengumi acted as a special militarized police force devoted to protecting the Shogunate and, though valourized in some dramatic treatments as heroes, they are regarded by many historians as vicious death squads. Kato’s film prefers the historical view of the Shinsengumi, first introducing them as blood-drenched foot soldiers stoically overseeing the aftermath of some late-night operation on an urban street. Enami’s story commences with a savage try-out held for samurai aspiring to join the group, forced to display their swordsmanship against one another with wooden swords rather than bamboo ones, thereby inflicting grave injuries on each other. The savagery of these sword-fights and the shock of the injuries sustained leave many of the hopefuls in utter panic and Enami vomiting under a nearby tree.
Enami is later mocked by Shinsengumi officers and his anger and shame inspire him to commit ritual suicide in front of them, something the observing samurai find humourous until Enami actually plunges the sword into his belly. The officers intervene and Enami wakes up in their compound having been accepted into their ranks based on his character (and not for his skill with a sword). He is cared for by Sato (Junko Fuji, who would later star in the Red Peony Gambler franchise, another series deserving of attention here and by the Arrow Video label) and the two quietly fall in love, although Enami consistently refuses her offers to run away from the Shinsengumi despite the harsh and punitive lifestyle it entails.
Breaches of the Shinsengumi’s code are often penalized with death and Enami is conscripted by his superiors to act as executioner in these cases, presumably as a way to toughen up the weak-willed samurai. The role is a fast track to success in the Shinsengumi, something one of Enami’s immediate superiors enjoyed until Enami’s arrival. Despite the position’s unpopularity within the ranks and Enami’s terrible first effort in the task, hacking wildly at his victim and turning the execution into a manic, bloody mess, he continues to volunteer, becoming increasingly more adept at killing his tenuously guilty colleagues and appearing ever-more hardened with each beheading. Enami’s expanding role grants him closer proximity to Shinsengumi leaders and he even openly questions the motives and interests of certain individuals. By the film’s conclusion, Enami is revealed to have his own personal connection with the Shinsengumi and a wild, riotous clash results, leading to the film’s sombre, dispiriting conclusion.
As Eiichi Kudo notes to Chris D. in Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, it was Toei and not the filmmakers that pushed for a shift in tone in the early 1960s, resulting in a vanguard of bleakly rendered, graphically violent tales of samurai action. Cruel Story, along with other period films like Cruel Tales of Bushido (Tadashi Imai, 1963) and 13 Assassins (Eiichi Kudo, 1963), reflected the present day anxieties of 1960s Japan, particularly the rising and radicalizing student movement and the New Left that were protesting in the streets, occupying buildings, fighting with police, and battling each other. Within less than a decade, the most radical of these anarchist and communist factions were engaged in terrorist activities both in Japan’s borders and beyond – hijacking aircraft, seizing government and corporate facilities, taking hostages, storming embassies, and even lynching their own members. These films may express the need for revolution against corrupt institutions or interpolate the public danger posed in extremist groups (or both). Watching Cruel Story, one is left feeling that Toei’s desire to push the envelope was welcome news to Tai Kato, giving the director dramatic and artistic license to explore darker, more graphic themes.
Cruel Story relies on Ozu-like low angles and Kurosawa-esque compositional complexity to bring visual sophistication to its merciless tale. In the contained environment of the Shinsengumi’s compound, Kato creates a claustrophobic world marked by surveillance and paranoia. Supporting performances by Sayuri Tachikawa, Ryohei Uchida, Choichiro Kawarazaki, Isao Kimura, and others are uniformly strong, although Kô Nishimura‘s glowering, short-tempered senior officer dominates the film whenever he appears onscreen. Kato frequently plays with distance, conspicuous uses of negative space, and the frame’s edge, giving Cruel Story a visual consciousness more typically associated with art cinema. Tony Rayns even notes that Cruel Story is the first movie to frankly represent homosexual relationships between samurai, suggesting that it is “[m]ore radical in its way than contemporary ‘new wave movies’ by the likes of Oshima and Shinoda.” (It is notable that Nagisa Oshima addressed homosexuality within the Shinsengumi 35 years later with Gohatto (1999).)
Cruel Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate nicely sets the table for a potential Tai Kato set, providing an introduction to his particular visual style, his conflicted masculinities, and his confrontational, unromantic, myth-dispelling approach. While a studio man making genre quickies, Kato nevertheless creates bold and compelling films. Whether here, in the samurai genre, or later, in the gangster film or in the thriller, Kato elevates his material into something exciting, surprising, and memorable.
Credits: In addition to Chris D.’s book and Tony Rayns review for Time Out, this post was also made possible by Paghat the Ratgirl’s review of Cruel Story at Wild Realm Reviews and Keith’s review at Teleport City.