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.