While this year’s Japan Cuts program is dominated by movies about sex and violence, Sword of Desperation, one of the most aesthetically conservative films at the festival, is also one of its strongest. Don’t let the title fool you: Sword of Desperation isn’t a decades-belated sequel to Sword of Doom, the haunting Tatsuya Nakadai samurai movie whose frenzied finale is deservedly a genre staple. Instead, Sword of Desperation is more like veteran melodramatist Yoji Yamada’s stately samurai trilogy, largely because Desperation, like Yamada’s three recent jidaegeki, is based on a historical novel by the prolific Shuhei Fujisawa.
Like the samurai in Yamada’s Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade, Sword of Desperation’s heroic Sanzaemon Kanzemi (Etsushi Toyokawa) is a man betrayed by his principles. After murdering a venomous concubine whose influences has actively led his master, the region’s Lord, astray, Sanzaemon is not sentenced to death, but forced to endure a year of house arrest, during which time he falls in love with his niece-in-law Rio (Chizuru Ikewaki). Why his life has been spared is a mystery but with his master about to go to war with his cousin, Lord Obiya (Koji Kikkawa), it’s assumed that something must be amiss.
Sword of Desperation’s confident, deliberately gradual pacepays off during its bloody climax. This masterfully shot action scene is a jolt of adrenaline in a movie that initially looks like a sleepy period romance. As with The Hidden Blade, once you’ve seen the titular combat maneuver, you won’t be able to easily get it out of your head.