Beautifilly filmed in widescreen black & white, Bakumatsu zankoku monogatari is known by sundry English titles. The subtitled 35 mm print I saw called it The Executioners but the current subtitled DVD Brutal Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate comes closer to an accurate translation of the Japanese title. It's also known as Cruel Story of the Shogunate's Downfall or simply as A Cruel Story.
This is a tale of Shinsen-gumi, the anti-royalist samurai organization of Kyoto about whom many films have been made, & many histories & novels written, many manga & anime drawn. They rose in power just before the Meiji Restoration as the Tokugawa period was coming to a close, & their goal was to preserve the Tokugawa government at any cost.
The Shinsen Group were notoriously cruel & whenever any member of their group tried to leave the organization, they were hunted down & killed. This film version shows the Shinsen group as gross & dirty, some members have even gone insane. This ignores previous directors' tendency to clean up the group's image at least a little, often a lot.
The historical & semi-historical figures include Kondo who assassinated the group's founder Serizawa in order to become its leader, & the deeply sadistic homosexual Hijikata who was the group's chief assassin, who summarily resolves internal strife with his sword. But in this film the events are viewed from slightly "outside" the core of Shinsengumi, by a naive young member.
In an early scene, a Shinsen member questions the humanity of the group, resulting in his assassination. He is given a half-dozen sword cuts then allowed to bleed to death just outside the Shinsen enclave, a heartless, sad death.
The main star is Hashizo Okawa, looking a bit chubby that year, but still beautiful. His leading lady is Junko Fuji best known for her yakuza series in which she plays the Red Peony Gambler (Hibotan bakuto, 1968, & further episodes). Supporting cast includes Sayuri Tachikawa, Ryohei Uchida, Choichiro Kawarazaki & Ko (Isao) Kimura.
Hashizo Okawa plays Enami, who starts out idealizing the Shinsen group & joins out of admiration. He is a country bumpkin who wants to become a true samurai, & at first he seems rather weak-willed.
He is confused by what he sees within the group & the first time he observes their extreme cruelty, he vomits. Yet when Enami gets to the point of actually volunteering to perform a beheading, he is clearly losing his innocence. Junko Fuji as Sato the gentle serving girl is the unhappy observer of Enami's corruption.
[SPOILER ALERT!] But in an unexpected turn of climactic events, Enami turns out to be Serizawa's nephew, Serizawa having been the past leader of Shinsengumi. He is seeking revenge against the evil Kondo Isami, Serizawa's killer. [END SPOILER ALERT]
For the mid-60s this was one of the bloodiest & grimmest samurai films & quite critical of the militarism of the samurai class. It was a low budget product filmed under tight deadline, but clearly both director & screenwriter took the job seriously & did a vastly better job that was required for them to remain employed.
The cast was fine enough to really bring it off, & Hashizo was especially lucky to star in something this serious, at a time when he was typecast in tame family films as a happy go lucky sort of samurai. The film won a handful of awards when it was new, & it still deserves to be regarded a minor classic.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl