Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai comes to DVD with the prestige of having won the Golden Lion at the 1963 Berlin Film Festival. Before one gets giddy at the thought that diligent DVD distributors AnimEigo have found a lost classic, one should consider the political factors that more than likely decided the film’s appointment to fleeting international prominence. The boundaries of that nebulous thing academics call “national cinema,” specifically “Japanese cinema,” was still a new-fangled thing, one whose air of exoticism was still culturally stimulating and not yet reduced to today’s pervasive lens of Nipponese fetishism. The deeply embittered concept of a cultural heritage of subservience that Bushido extols most likely seemed revelatory to an international audience. Like Bushido star Kinnosuke Nakamura’s performance, who takes on the role of seven generations of a Japanese clan destined to sacrifice their personal needs for the sake of their superiors’, Tadashi Imai’s film is memorable strictly as a novelty. It’s an Orientalist’s delight that insists that the Japanese consider a noble tradition of groveling for the sake of churlishly uncaring masters to be inherently Japanese. A cross-cultural exchange this ain’t.
The emotional dishonesty of Bushido is built into the film’s rickety multi-generational narrative. A contemporary salaryman named Iikura (Nakamura) looks back omnisciently on his family tree and relates through a series of journals recorded how his ancestors were nothing but a bunch of doomed, spineless losers. Every one of Bushido‘s stories boil down to a low-level samurai’s misplaced sense of fealty to his master. One samurai has to ship his daughter off to marry a nobleman and sacrifice her happiness for the sake of keeping their family name pristine while another has to execute two prisoners for a power-mad lord without realizing that he’s murdering people that are near and dear to him. They do it all for the sake of saving face, making their need to satisfy either their professional/social obligations or their loved ones a drastically over-simplified view of history as propagandistic soap opera.
As almost all of the episodes in Bushido revolve around some kind of sublimated sexual tension, the most engaging and overtly drastic of the film’s melodramatic segments comes during a sequence where Iikura Kyutaro, a retainer to a lascivious old lord, must sacrifice his heterosexuality for the sake of the greater good. His journal entries are markedly terse as they mask his disgust with having to put up with his master’s inappropriate petting (the most telling entry is simply “Received my lord’s underwear”). For the sake of his family, he has to be a one-man harem, even if he does secretly love and want to elope with a female servant. On its own, this sequence sufficiently relates the film’s unenlightened message without the monotony or the tedium of having to watch it six more times. Through laughably campy scenes that allude to a venal seduction, the viewer can finally understand how Japanese it is to be dumped on by your boss all in the name of honor.
The folks at AnimEigo do a great job of reducing the grain in their restored letterbox print of the film. The black and whites of the characters' period costumes crisply contrast with one another. The sound is a bit too touched-up on the narrator's booming Wizard of Oz-like voiceover, often detracting from the viewing experience, but then again, it's just further pronouncing what already stuck out like a sore thumb.
AnimEigo unfortunately don't do extras. As with their bare-bones disc of Onimasa, their release of Bushido comes equipped only with a measly trailer gallery and a couple of very well-researched tracts on the contextual history of the tradition of the samurai that the film sorely wants. It's poorly formatted and much too dense to be entertaining after-viewing reading, but thankfully, the film's subtitles are peppered with informative annotations that help you as you go. Furthermore, an OCD-level of attention to detail has obviously been invested in certain aspects of the DVD judging by the way that the viewer is given the option of choosing between yellow and white English subtitles.
A blunt and better-off forgotten meta-historical drama that explains nothing about what the Japanese experience is like because it's too wrapped up in cartoon clichés about the necessity and the cruelty of serving others to invest any noteworthy level of depth in its characters.