Daibosatsu Pass is bloodier than the Khyber
or Breakheart, thanks largely to the mean-spirited samurai Ryunosuke Tsukue.
Years ago, a Buddhist monk tried to sanctify the picturesque mountain rest stop,
but it clearly did not take. Instead, it is the sight of a senseless murder
that will unleash a convoluted chain of bad karma in Swords in the Moonlight (a.k.a. Souls
in the Moonlight) Tomu Uchida’s three-film adaptation of Kaizan Nakazato’s Great Bodhisattva Pass, all of which
screen in succession during MoMA’s ongoing retrospective of the major Japanese
This is indeed the same Tsukue of Kihachi
Okamoto’s Sword of Doom, but there is
clearly more to his story. Part 1 follows
roughly the same narrative. It starts with Tsukue killing the pilgrim at the
pass out of simple wanton cruelty, but he is survived by his granddaughter
Omatsu, who will have a significant role to play in later films. Once again,
Tsukue is to face the inferior swordsman Bunnojo Utsuki in an exhibition match
that carries great important for Tsukue’s opponent but virtually none for
himself. Utsuki’s fiancée Ohama begs the notorious swordsman to have mercy on
her intended, but her intervention stimulates his lust instead.
The recaps that start parts one and two first
says Tsukue “abducts” and then “seduces” Ohama, but it is really
something in between. Regardless, their time spent together is mutually miserable,
despite the son they bring into the world. Ironically, some of Tsukue’s most
peaceful times are spent with Otoyo, a spooky dead-ringer for Ohama (with the
emphasis on dead), who nurses the now rogue ronin back to health. Meanwhile,
the pilgrim’s granddaughter Omatsu and Utsuki’s young brother Hyomi are thrust
together by their shared history with Tsukue. They are also falling in love,
but the junior Utsuki gives precedence to his quest for vengeance.
Even if you have seen Sword of Doom, films 2 and 3 largely cover new territory. In yet
another ironic twist of fate, part two climaxes with both Tsukue and Utsuki
fighting the same crooked feudal lord’s attempt to confiscate a prosperous
mining concern, unbeknown to each other. The scope of the epic continues to
broaden in the third film when Tsukue and Utsuki align themselves with rival
lords, albeit rather reluctantly in Tsukue’s case.
Frankly, Swords in the Moonlight is all good, but it gets even better with
each installment. Tsukue also becomes an increasingly intriguing figure.
Despite his sociopathic tendencies, we start to see something that resembles
tenderness from him in the second and third films. His relationships with women
defy easy categorization, especially his ambiguous involvement with a
disfigured noble woman, who is another involuntary guest of Tsukue’s patron-lord.
Part three also ends with some stone-cold Buddhist “fire and brimstone,” well
above and beyond anything in Doom.
Indeed, the series goes from good to
great, but Chiezô Kataoka is always an electric presence as the psychotic yet
guilt-ridden Tsukue. He just radiates badassery, even and especially when
Tsukue’s eyes start to fail, making him into an evil early ancestor of
Zatoichi. Yumiko Hasegawa fully capitalizes on her opportunity to be
exquisitely tragic under two very different circumstances as Ohama and Otoyo,
while Satomi Oka and Yorozuya Kinnosuke are rather appealing as Omatsu and
Hyomi Utsuki. As an added bonus, Muku (the wonder dog) manages to be as handy
as Lassie without coming across as a gimmick.
That’s right, there is a ton of hardcore hacking
and slashing in the Moonlight trilogy,
plus a faithful canine saves the day several times over. Uchida even throws in
some macabrely expressionistic dream sequences. Seriously, what more could a
movie lover ask for? Very highly recommended for Jidaigeki fans, Swords in the Moonlight Parts 1, 2, and 3 screens
again this Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons (11/1-11/3) as part of
MoMA’s revelatory Tomu Uchida retrospective.
Labels: Japanese Cinema, MoMA, Tomu Uchida