Chivalry may not be dead, but there’s a good chance it will get you killed.
Having seen only two of his films (this one and The Yakuza, a film that joins the ranks of my all time favorites), I can now confidently say that Ken Takakura is a Japanese movie star incarnate; a man whose films I’ll go out of my way to experience.
In Brutal Tales Of Chivalry, (the first of a 9 film series I’ll now want to consume in its entirety) Takakura plays Seiji, a Japanese soldier returning from the failed campaign that was World War II. His hometown in shambles and his yakuza clan shaken by the recent assassination of their boss, Seiji is named head of the clan, and tasked by his murdered predecessor to maintain peace with the rival clans at all cost.
A code-living exemplar, Seiji’s stoic bravery and steadfastness will be the anchor of this film as wave after wave of post-war societal stress and criminal violence threaten to pull the town apart at its seams. Seiji (though himself technically an underworld criminal boss) is the embodiment of the Japanese code of honor in a world where the old ways are tossed aside by a new crop of criminals smarting from a major global defeat. His adherence to code above all else creates sore spots with other characters. The love of his life Aya (Yoshiko Mita) has married another in a bid to bolster the Yakuza clan she is a part of. While Aya seems extremely troubled by this, she’s even more troubled by Seiji’s unwavering acceptance of the situation. Also a source of tension: The young men in Seiji’s clan are interested in vengeance for their master, in spite having heard his dying wish for peace. As the rival clan commits increasingly flagrant acts of disrespect in an attempt to gain dominance of the local economy, it becomes more and more difficult for Seiji to keep the peace.
Ultimately, Brutal Tales of Chivalry does live up to its title, as an exploration of one man and how his adherence to a societal code of conduct ripples throughout a town ravaged by war. The code seems to value stability at the expense of individual life, and many will die by the sword as the conflict plays out. Seiji is a formidable hero on which to hang a film; humble, wise, unfalteringly brave… but there’s a gray area where he himself is a part of a criminal enterprise, and the code by which he lives clearly results in bloodshed. Yet, when your Imperial government has sent you into an earth-shatteringly violent World War… can the underworld be the system that must save you from your own government? The film is simultaneously asking these salient and complex questions and presenting an unflappable hero on which the audience can rely to bring about righteous retribution.
There’s an attention to detail in Brutal Tales Of Chivalry that is reminiscent of many of the classic yakuza films I love so much. As in the Zatoichi series, period details and cultural particularities are given rigorous and accurate attention, while fantastical elements of badassery are also sprinkled throughout for good measure. A wandering stranger Kazama (Ryo Ikebe) becomes a guest of our hero’s clan and proves his mettle (and his handiwork with a gun) and loyalty to Seiji’s clan even as he searches for his sister whom he had lost amidst the chaos of the war. Kazama has his own tragic arc relating to his sister and being swept up into the conflict over the local peasant market which our clans are warring over. One of the greatest scenes of the film involves Kazama’s extremely formal introduction to the clan, back bent, hand outstretched, round after round of customary introduction and bonafides and ritual provide him access to the clan and provide the audience with an entry point into the rigidity of this society.
For as fascinating and well crafted as it is, Kiyoshi Saeki’s film (he appears to have directed most if not all of the 9 film series here) is also rip-roaringly entertaining. As with the greatest samurai and yakuza tales, we ultimately come down to a couple of righteous badasses squaring off against a horde of villains, swords clashing, guns blazing, bloodied tattoos exposed, and some sense of justice being restored at great cost. It’s wonderful stuff that comes highly recommended.
As is always the case with Twilight Time releases, one of the great highlights is the liner note essay from film historian Julie Kirgo. My take on the film gravitated much more strongly to the individual code of honor and how that played out in Ken Takakura’s character and performance. Kirgo’s thoughts on the way that code specifically played out in the post-World War II setting enriched my experience of (and reflection on) the film tremendously.
A genuine treat to own on Blu-ray, here’s to hoping Twilight Time is able to slowly release the entire Showa Zankyo-den series to a new audience also struggling with how to live in a society where our government is floundering at best, leading us into disaster at worst.
And I’m Out.
Brutal Tales Of Chivalry is now available on limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time.