The endless permutations of character tropes, value systems and plot structures found in samurai films have made them the Japanese Western; both in their importance to national film culture and in their seemingly endless longevity. One wonders, then, what troubling social and industrial forces must be at work to allow a film like Snow on the Blades to be produced. As an exercise in period filmmaking it’s uniformly great, as an addition to the ‘vengeful samurai’ canon a solidly enjoyable drama, but as an animation of any true-to-life attitudes it’s little short of morally repugnant. A spirited defence of the ‘old ways’ of the bushido code in the face of progress which it casts as identical to dreaded Westernisation, Setsurô Wakamatsu’s film’s strong lead performances and at times stunning cinematography fail to rescue it from becoming a simple lockstep entry into the jidaigeki canon.
Which is a shame, because the manner in which the film frames its primary plotline – both literally and figuratively – is unusual and fascinating. Knowingly set in the years surrounding the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and all too aware of the sea changes which this would mean for Japan, Snow on the Blades begins with a flashback to 1860, when its hero Kingo Shimura (Kiichi Nakai), a young and ambitious retainer to the beloved progressive Lord Ii, is shunted into shameful exile after failing to protect Ii from a band of nationalist assassins. Over the next thirteen years, he hunts for the surviving members of the Mita clan, whose execution will restore some of his reputation. As the new era begins and Japanese politics opens the nation to trade with the West, the ancient feudalist samurai codes begin to be seen as outmoded and, eventually, to be outlawed. The visual incongruence of Shimura in his traditional garb, approaching courthouses and public buildings to speak with jacketed public officials, is striking enough that we might be conned into thinking that the film will offer an incisive exploration into Japanese modernisation. Similarly, early scenes are framed with a neat symmetry and purposeful lack of fluidity, which effectively evokes the rigid nature of the samurai class structure, and suggests that Shimura’s already established quest for vengeance will be complicated by the emergence of a more systematised rule of law.
Not so, though. After the mid-point of Snow on the Blades, it descends more and more into a simplistic rant against the vicissitudes of modernity, such as not being allowed to bloodily murder people who have wronged you in some way. When Shimura, on the hunt for the one remaining assassin now living under the name of Naokichi (Hiroshi Abe), runs into an old fencing buddy Shinosuke, now making a living in the new field of policing, they witness an ex-samurai debtor being threatened by his employer, before a whole cabal of former retainers emerge from the crowd and proclaim that they will uphold the old ways in defending him. “What was important yesterday,” says Shinosuke ruefully, “is thrown away today,” apparently missing the irony that he, a police officer, has just seen several men threaten another with evisceration over a minor slight, and somehow concluded that they were upholding society’s moral fibre. It hardly helps, either, that these later scenes are complicated by some unnecessary subplots, particularly those including a little girl befriended by Naokichi and a young colleague of Kingo’s wife, both of whom feel as though they appear in order to pad out the film’s running time.
The final extended confrontation between the two men exemplifies Snow on the Blades’ strengths and more abundant weaknesses. An expertly paced, taut sequence in which Kingo hires Naokichi – now a reclusive rickshaw driver – to take him to a secluded city courtyard, builds to a climax in which the rest of the film’s backward morality comes to the fore again. The conclusion of the men’s confrontation is unsatisfying, with Kingo posited as a merciful hero for failing to kill Naokichi, and instead deciding to honour Lord Ii’s last order, which was to treat the other man with respect after capturing him. That he is only able to be humanistic by adhering to the same regressive honour system that has led him on a decade-plus revenge quest is not at all addressed, and Kingo ends the film just as dogmatic as he began it, despite his admonishing Naokichi that they supposedly must both move on. A weird, Tubular Bells-style soundtrack completely at odds with the dynamics of the scene renders the whole denouement pretty eye-rolling, too. With a protagonist-antagonist relationship resolved in such a ham-fisted manner, inadequately explored themes of political upheaval, and overreliance on tired samurai tropes of loyalty and stoicism, Snow on the Blades will enthral only those determined to enjoy its technical panache against their better judgment.