Samurai films have a curious knack for expressing compassionate, humanist ideals via soul-crushing bleakness and violence. One would be hard-pressed to find a bleaker, more violent indictment of the romance of the samurai — and the culture of violence in general — than director Tai Kato’s blood-drenched and aptly named Brutal Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This is samurai drama stripped entirely of any pretense, robbed of the myth of the noble samurai code, and devoid entirely of any sense of heroism. In the eyes of this film, the samurai of the historic Shinsengumi clan are brutish exploiters and backstabbers at best, and murderous, paranoid psychopaths at their worst. The Shinsengumi were an actual group of samurai, charged with keeping the peace in Kyoto and defending the Tokugawa Shogunate from threats both foreign and domestic — this being the period in which Japan had finally been pried open to contact with the Western world. In popular Japanese culture, the Shinsengumi have been portrayed as everything from heroic defenders of the Japanese heart to thuggish throwbacks mercilessly defending their own power at the expense of progress. Brutal Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate is a particularly harsh look at them and at the entire concept of samurai.
Young Enami (Hashizo Okawa, best known for somewhat lighter-hearted roles) idolizes the Shinsengumi and longs to become a member of what he presumes to be this noble and prestigious clan. Lucky for him, the clan is actively recruiting new members — exactly why they need so many new recruits will become evident soon enough. Unluckily, the tryout is horrific. Applicants are forced to battle — more or less to the death — one another. Anyone who defeats three other applicants can then test himself against a Shinsengumi master, and only then will the clan elders make a decision about the applicant’s fitness to join. Even certain members of the clan think this is a bit harsh, but the tests go forward with predictably fatal and panicked effect. Enami himself is nauseated by the gore and stumbles outside to vomit, along with a good many other suddenly disillusioned young hopefuls. But only Enami is so mortified by his own weakness that he accosts the clan masters after the trials and attempts to commit seppuku in front of them. He is saved from death, and the clan is so impressed by his willingness to gut himself that he accepted as a new recruit.
At first, life among the Shinsengumi seems harsh but good-natured. The rules are strict and the training rough, but there is a lot of back-slapping and bonding and loin cloth stealing going on to take the edge off the brutality. Really, no different it seems than any other sort of boot camp. That veneer quickly wears away however, as Enami becomes increasingly exposed to just how depraved the clan is. It turns out that part of the reason they need new recruits is because members are rather fond of turning each other in for infraction of the clan rules, and the leader’s sentence for almost every accusation is execution of the accused. Enami himself seems poorly suited for the samurai life, but he sticks with it even after he is forced to execute another member and botches the job in grisly fashion.
Eventually, he gets better at such killing, as it becomes apparent it’s a good way to get in with the leaders of the clan. So obsessed does Enami seem that he will volunteer to execute errant members even when they are condemned on the flimsiest of evidence — or no evidence at all. The death penalty seems to have more to do with how irritable the clan leader is feeling that day than it has to do with any sense of justice or discipline. Witness to Enami’s rapid corruption is gentle serving girl Sato (Junko Fuji, who was less gentle in the title role of the long-running Red Peony Gambler series). She hopes to guide him away from the corruption and backstabbing that typifies the clan, but Enami remains committed to his path toward madness — for more complicated reasons, it turns out, than anyone first expected.
If there’s any country that idolizes samurai as much — possibly more — than Japan, it’s the United States, and we do so largely without the counterbalance of films that were critical of the caste. The film The Last Samurai casts a rosy, nostalgic eye toward the final days of the samurai and the Tokugawa shogunate, positioning the samurai as noble keepers of the flame, defending a pure and simple way of life from encroaching Westernization, guns, and the death of Japanese innocence. That film would have been set more or less around the same time as this one, and was about a group of pro-tradition samurai very much like the Shinsengumi. And this is the common image of the samurai in Western pop culture — noble warriors with an admirable code and endless heaps of honor. The reality, it turns out, is considerably different and a bit more in line with what we see in Brutal Story. Especially at the end of things, the samurai were hardly peaceful farmers just looking to defend their simple, honest life from a sell-out emperor. They were renowned for their cruelty, running roughshod over the Japanese peasantry and dedicated to protecting a brutal, militaristic caste system from reform. Would that The Last Samurai had Tom Cruise living amongst the samurai of Brutal Story, we would have had a much more interesting film.
Japan has similarly romanticized its samurai past, what with it being their past and all, but it has also been the primary source of films and literature ripping away the veneer and exposing the brutal reality of the system, both for those who were victims of it and those who were caught up in it. The Shinsengumi in particular occupy a place in Japanese pop culture nearly as prolific as the notorious Yagyu ninja clan. Some tales of the Shinsengumi do their best to whitewash the story and present them as heroes. Many others treat them as men with varying degrees of villainy. Few of them go for the throat of the myth with such viciousness as Brutal Story. Not everyone is hopelessly depraved in this movie, but the few who cling to some shred of human decency do so tenuously and rarely put much effort into opposing those who would indulge the baser side of man’s capacity for cruelty. There is the obvious stuff — the murder, the treachery — but there is also a subtler, creeping criticism masked as calmer, more sedate moments.
Scenes of the men in the barracks just chumming about with one another, cracking jokes, talking about dames — this normal sort of camaraderie seems at first to be the welcome breather between scenes of incredible violence. But then the movie reminds you that this sort of normalcy amid such cruelty is part of what makes accepting the cruelty that much easier. Most of these men don’t start out evil, and hell, most of them don’t realize they even are evil. In a closed environment, surrounded by nothing but the opinion that the even the most sadistic behavior is perfectly acceptable, could these guys become anything but what they’ve become?
For Brutal Story, the violent behavior is one thing and easy to criticize. But the additional message is that it’s not the violent behavior about which we need to be concerned; it’s the culture that breeds in a man the notion that such behavior is acceptable in the first place. There is nothing remarkable about these samurai when they first enter the society. They are like anyone else: loners, wannabe heroes, fathers, sons. They are not rabble and rejects; the clan has strict quality control on their applicants, and they are expected to adhere to a strict moral code once they are members. It’s just that, while that moral code condemns many things, it does not condemn wanton violence. In a paranoid setting like the Shinsengumi compound, where depravity is prevalent to the point of becoming mundane, of course maladjusted killers are bred. And this is the core of the problem, the issue that Brutal Story wants to drag out of romantic shadows and into the unforgiving light. It does society little good to condemn the killers if it does not address the culture that creates them.
In many cases, samurai cinema is regarded as the most Japanese of Japanese cinema, dealing with mentalities, histories, and beliefs that can only be fully comprehended in a Japanese frame of mind. I disagree. I think the samurai film speaks loudly on a global stage specifically because difficult moral arguments like this can be understood universally. There is an emotional desperation to Brutal Story’s plea that makes it deeply affecting on a level that transcends nationality. The culture of violence exists in pretty much every culture, and even if it is here couched in the language of Japanese history and tropes of the samurai film, even someone with no knowledge of such things can comprehend the message in Brutal Story. That is a message that resonates across geographical boundaries. It’s unfortunate that it is as relevant a plea today as it has ever been. In the United States, entrenched as we are in an emotional public argument about things such as gun violence and rape, the talk is often about punishing the perpetrator or, sickly, shaming the victim. Little attention is paid to reforming the aspects of our society that makes anyone think such behavior is OK.
The film works on a purely visceral level as well. So well that it can be easy to overlook the moral argument and lose oneself in the parade of atrocities. Brutal Story is crammed with action and a surprising amount of blood and flat-out gore. Even in black and white, the action achieves a level of splattery horror that rivals the much later and more infamous Lone Wolf and Cub films. The action is also far away from the normally stylized and almost ballet-like beauty of samurai film choreography. Such films, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s, handle sword fights with a series of graceful and dramatic poses followed by a few seconds of explosive violence — usually itself followed by a dramatic death. But Brutal Story’s action handles swordplay in the same way Kinji Fukusaku’s yakuza films would handle violence. It is panicked, flailing, and ugly. Even the masters cannot summon the sort of epic posturing or elegance that usually comes with a samurai duel. It’s all scuttling, grunting, desperate blind waving of swords, and fear. Just as we quickly learn there is nothing to admire in these samurai, so too do we quickly learn that there is no beauty to the business of killing. It is only killing, and the act is as clumsy and awkward and insane as the men wielding the swords.
Brutal Story was shot very quickly and on a very low budget, but it masks that fact very well. Tai Kato’s direction is fast-paced and gorgeous, making the most of a limited number of sets (the entire thing takes place in the Shinsengumi compound, the sort of generic period set that must litter every backlot in Japan. Instead of looking limited, the location helps augment a feeling of claustrophobia, insulation, and isolation from the rest of the world. Kato lets image and framing do as much work in communicating his themes as the plot, though at no time does the direction become intrusive. This seems to be par for the course with Japanese filmmaking, and especially with samurai films: the ability to create stunning yet subtle shot compositions that complement rather than overshadow the plot. I’ve not seen anything else from Tai Kato or screenwriter Takeo Kunihiro. Neither of them have achieved cult fame the way other samurai film directors have. Brutal Story is perhaps too much of too many things to get embraced outside of its initial popularity. It is ugly and mean even if it has a humanist message. It is soaked in gore, but the philosophical implications make it hard to sell as purely an exploitation film. There are so few people for whom to root, and you know the few for whom you can root will most assuredly suffer for their humanity. It offers no olive branch to the viewer. At the same time though, it does not feel like it is wallowing in the darker side of humanity’s tendencies. It is exposing them, exploring them, and asking us how we are going to cope with them.
Brutal Story is a surprisingly challenging, angry, and depressing film, very much the equal of better-known Japanese new wave and borderless action and well as the classics of samurai cinema. It satisfies on so many levels, entrancing even as it revolts. When we speak of how socially and politically charged filmmakers sought disguise in the realm of Japanese exploitation film making, we often speak purely of yakuza and pinky films subverting the pro-tradition sentiments of old genres like the samurai film. In Brutal Story, however, we have a samurai film that could easily call among its peers the works of Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, and other incendiary Japanese directors of the 1950s and 60s, or even the previously mentioned Kinji Fukusaku, who did for “the noble yakuza” in the 1970s what films like Brutal Story did for the samurai a decade before. It’s no accident that the film chooses the Shinsengumi as the pop culture icon to drag through the mud. As for its conclusions about the nature of a society that can raise men with no moral issues about the heinous acts they are committing — well, there is promise if not resolution.