The Famous Sword Bijomaru (1945, Mizoguchi Kenji)

The Famous Sword Bijomaru is a tragedy. Well, at its best, it’s a tragedy.

The film—which runs sixty-five minutes and has zero subplots, very few close-ups, and no establishing shots or sequences—opens with apprentice swordsmith Hanayagi Shôtarô presenting his benefactor, Oya Ichijirô, with a new sword. Hanayagi is an orphan, Oya took him in at twelve, Hanayagi’s trying to show his gratitude.

Unfortunately, it turns out Hanayagi isn’t quite ready for prime time on the sword-making front, though it turns out maybe his teacher (Yanagi Eijirô) isn’t great either—the film never explains how these guys are so inept at making swords when they’re literally professional sword makers—anyway, Oya ends up shamed and then worse and Hanayagi blames himself and spirals.

Luckily, Oya’s got a daughter—Yamada Isuzu—who doesn’t thinking running off and cutting open your belly to get out of responsibilities is the way to do it and she tries to get Hanayagi to make a new sword. With this new sword, they can all reclaim their honor, not to mention getting some vengeance. Only it’s also just before—like, just before—the Meiji Restoration kicks off and there’s a lot of overarching political stuff going on. Basically Yanagi is distracted with the politics and the potential return of the Emperor, which I guess is a subplot. Sort of.

After lots of foreshadowing and lots of angst—Hanayagi isn’t just feeling incapable, it’s also his fellow apprentice sword maker Ishii Kan and, obviously, boss Yanagi—the third act entirely hinges on the battles between the Shogun and the Imperial forces. It goes from being background to foreground between two scenes; director Mizoguchi has this exceptional way of splitting the action between foreground and background and he literally shoves his protagonists into the background to bring the battle forward. At the time, it doesn’t seem too concerning because the drama is just colliding and so on, but by the end… it’s clear that point is where Sword starts stumbling.

The conclusion is fine. Mizoguchi whiffs on the resolve to the sword-making, seemingly so he can showcase the accompanying battle, but it also flushes all the character development he’s been doing to this point. Given the entire film, save Yanagi’s “subplot,” is character development… well, it’d have been nice if the sequence had been like a good sword fight at least. It’s like Mizoguchi forgets what the central tension of the film has been to this point.

And the ending is really pat.

It’s always well-directed—with the single caveat being a strange ghost apprentice sequence, but the idea isn’t bad, Mizoguchi just can’t figure out how to visualize it. Also it’s 1945 and composite photography was only so good. Really good photography from Miki Minoru and Takeno Haruo; the way they shoot the exterior scenes—often on sets—is incredible.

The acting’s fine. Since Mizoguchi stays out of close-ups, it’s mostly about blocking and moving; Ishii and Yamada give the best performances. Hanayagi is a little inert–intentionally as a character, but the performance overdoes it.

Sword is a very well-made hour of film. Mizoguchi’s direction certainly makes it seem like it’s going to be better than it finishes, but it’s still pretty good.

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