For the devout, honor can become a prison. Snow on the Blades is director Setsurô Wakamatsu’s romantic rumination on one samurai’s futile devotion to the code that society left behind. Though too heavy-handed in its thematic approach, the memorable characters and breathtaking imagery draw you in and refuse to let you go. This is a samurai movie less concerned about the swordplay than the men holding the swords.
The year is 1860 in Hikone, Japan, and the samurai Kingo (Kiichi Nakai) is revered amongst men. He has just taken the beautiful Setsu (Ryôko Hirosue) to be his bride. His prideful mother and father delight over his ascension to chief protector of the Shogun’s First Minister, Ii Naosuke (Kichiemon Nakamura). All of his friends, including his closest confidante, Shinnosuke (Masahiro Takashima), consider him above reproach. It all changes, however, when Kingo receives a cryptic note foretelling the assassination of his master.
Cut to 13 years later and Kingo is adrift. Unable to protect his doomed master, he’s deprived an honorable death (by seppuku) until he can kill the one remaining assassin. This one assassin may (or may not) be a desolated rickshaw driver named Naokichi (Hiroshi Abe), who also lives a life of quiet desperation. While these two men may be frozen in time—bound to a code that no longer exists—Japan has been inundated by the economic and social values of the West. Feudalism is abandoned, turning the samurai into master-less nomads.
Snow on the Blades spends its bloated middle section belaboring the plight of the samurai; men with no place in a civilized world that’s eager to forget them. From magistrates who refuse to help Kingo fulfill his vengeance quest, to merchants openly mocking his archaic beliefs, director Wakamatsu gives us numerous scenes bemoaning the cultural death of the samurai. The writing by Jirô Asada (adapted, presumably, from his own short story) is almost insultingly direct. Each character takes great pains to condemn Kingo for his inability to move forward. When we see a blooming camellia, however, its beautiful petals starkly contrasted against a barren winter landscape, we understand everything we need to know about Kingo’s plight without being told.
What saves Snow on the Blades from collapsing beneath the weight of its own gravitas is the tantalizing relationship between Kingo and Setsu. Though Kingo is inextricably cemented in his social niche, we see a progressive spirit in his respectful and loving treatment of Setsu. This is truly a relationship out of its time; a man and woman on equal footing, bound by their commitment to each other. If Kingo succeeds in finding the assassin, Setsu will also die by his side, as dictated by the samurai code. Yet she never objects to the path her man must follow. She understands what drives him, even as she yearns to cast aside the old ways and tackle their uncertain future together. It’s the type of quiet resignation that colors each scene with an aching poignancy.
Wakamatsu lavishes the screen with stunning visuals and powerful emotional epiphanies. Delicate snowflakes drift in and out of the action, while luminous paper lanterns pierce the darkness. The snow acts as a persistent reminder of the treacherous past, as Kingo and his guards were instructed to protect their swords from the snow on the fateful day their master was assassinated. The slow-building action of Kingo’s methodical quest pays off over and over again in the film’s second half. Whether it’s Kingo’s confession about his true feelings for his old master, or an inevitable confrontation between ancient adversaries, these powerful scenes subvert expectation in delightful ways. The result is a simple story that manages to be surprisingly gut-wrenching.
The performances are uniformly wonderful, with Nakai and Hirosue deserving of special attention. Each occupies their role with silent elegance, controlling the screen completely. Together, their emotions bottled up tightly, they convey pages of text with a raised eyebrow or a down-turned gaze. And when they finally touch one another, be it physically or emotionally, your heart beats just a little bit faster.
Snow on the Blades succeeds despite its flaws because it knows precisely how to grab your heart. It pits two forces against their own fate and dares you not to get involved. The political and cultural wrangling of the samurai is interesting in a historical sense, but it’s just the detailing in what’s essentially a period love story. Those looking for bloodshed will probably be disappointed by Snow on the Blades. This movie is after your tears, and it won’t stop until it gets them.