The Jidaigeki genre (put simplistically, period dramas) used to dominate Japanese cinema. Going back to the early days of the film industry, half of it was focused on this genre: contemporary dramas came from Tokyo; Jidaigeki came from Osaka. The most widely celebrated films of Japan fall into the category: your Seven Samurais (1954), Harakiris (1962) and Sansho the Ballifs (1954) (to name but a few). Nowadays, the genre is home to post-modern and revisionist takes, the most notable examples being from Takashi Miike (whose latest film is also playing at Japan Cuts). The Pass is not one of these films, it is a more classical take on the genre, comfortingly so but also to its detriment.
This is the story of a stoic man, Kawai Tsugunosuke (Kôji Yakusho), the chief retainer of a small domain in Echigo (Nagaoka) in 1867. The film covers the last days of the samurai, as you’d guess, after which 260 years of the Tokugawa Shogunate came to an end and political power was returned to the Emperor. All of this is told to the audience in an overly expository opening sequence. In fact, exposition is an issue throughout. The film over relies on onscreen text, and in general is very dryly dramatic. This is partly down to the story it is telling: initially the story of a man trying to find a peaceful solution to avoid a bloody war; then the story of the war itself. That man is, of course, our protagonist. This opening part is conceptually compelling, one man’s quest for peace and honour is appealing – especially as we know history goes against him.
Sadly, the film is just too broad. The conflict between the idea of the samurai, and all that entails, and encroaching imperialism, and what that entails, is a thorny one. The film makes a gesture to outside nations as a ruining force over Japan, happy to apportion blame in that way but not happy to reflect inwards. Yes, we see a negative side to imperialism, with the Emperor’s forces being the ostensible villains of the piece – and we see them as stubborn, cruel and as enemies of peace – but this is achieved through a vague deification of the samurai. Of course, it makes sense that the characters themselves, samurais, believe in the just nature of their cause and wider ideology. Their dialogue about honour and about how Japan should go is internally consistent, it is just an odd positioning for the audience and makes the film feel stuck in the past. The deification of traditionalism falls flat and the more interesting ideas go uninterrogated.
Why this stings is that the wider genre has a rich history of interrogation. The classic samurai films are critical and there is a long history of using the Jidaigeki genre as a political and artistic platform. When Mizoguchi was using this genre to comment on modern day Japan, and as a political statement (via Ugetsu) in 1953, a 2021 film about the honourable samurai in an end-of-an-era framework just feels outdated. It would have even felt overtly traditional in the ’50s. This is not at all helped by the construction of our lead character. He exists purely as stoicism, he speaks almost purely aphoristically and is more idea than person. Yes, this is reflective of his background and status; however, this is not hugely interesting for the audience. As the dramatic centre of the film, he is uninteresting. He has one commendable trait but is only that. There is no convincing humanity or emotion here, he exists as an ideal to espouse a value and to be followed. The film seems to be aiming for the feel of Red Beard (1965), my favourite Kurosawa film. We have an ageing figure that still commands authority, and is still driven by idealism, but there is no nuance here. An early combat sequence calls to mind the fight from Red Beard, but only in a way that makes it pale.
This is due to the very uninspiring filmmaking. Though, it must be said that the period details here are very good: it is a well realised portrait of an aesthetically pleasing time in history (as strange as this statement sounds). The camera is mostly static, allowing us to take in the architecture and the scenery, but also in a way that is inert. Things are not framed in a way that is hugely interesting and the stillness doesn’t pair well with how hollow the opening section feels. It is a film that needs to get going much quicker, spending too much time selling its worthiness in a very flat opening. It all feeling very sedate and still framing just does not help here. This camera work carries forward to the battle, robbing it of some of its potential impact. It all fits in with how overly traditional and well-to-do the film feels. It is a comforting watch, for sure, but not an interesting or thoughtful one.
This being said, the battle sections do have some spectacle. The excellent production design elevates the film nicely and the framing does even allow some real beauty. At this stage, the film starts to have an impact. The battles are grand and convincingly choreographed. This is, once again, part of the familiar appeal of the film. There is nothing new here, nothing beyond expectation, but it ticks genre boxes in a satisfying way. You see a big battle and some of the distinct sequences are really well handled. A moment with a Gatling gun edges towards some thematic power and is very well done.
The overt familiarity and outdated sensibilities limit this film. It is a throwback, yes, and this is satisfying. But, it feels somewhat regressive even when compared to the films it is throwing back to. This is even more apparent when Tatsuya Nakadai shows up for a brief role. It is wonderful to see this screen legend but his famous Jidaigeki films were so much more interesting than this. When you have the star of Harakiri making an appearance, it feels weird when your film emptily echoes the values that that film attacks as an empty façade. Yet, as just under two hours of ‘they don’t make them like this anymore,’ The Pass is pleasing. It may not be interesting but it is handsome and earnest.