Set in the times immediately after Commander Perry's breaking of Japan's isolation, this film covers some of the chaos and uncertainty of the Japanese political and social classes resulting from contact with a more powerful foreign force.
The film revolves around the character of Hachiro Kiyokawa, a farmer turned master swordsman and scholar. We first meet him after his arrest for the killing of a detective working for the Shoganate. As a supporter of the Emperor and a conspirator plotting to destroy the Shogunate and kill all foreigners, he is most wanted by the Shoganate forces who are interested in gaining power thru foreign technology. Surprisingly, he is pardoned if he agrees to organize wandering ronin to defeat the supporters of the Emperor. Amazingly he accepts the job but he isn't trusted so the Shogunate devise a plan to kill him if he turns on them. His co-conspirators on the Emperor's side are shocked at his apparent defection and quarrel over what to do.
The bulk of the film consists of flashbacks as the many characters recount an important incident involving Kiyokawa. We learn a lot about his eccentric personality, the setbacks he's endured only due to being a farmer's son, and his slightly cracked ambitions. Unfortunately this format makes the film hard to follow as it's often hard to know when we are in a flashback or not. The excellent black and white photography is remarkable but there's no stylistic difference between flashbacks and present events. Perhaps this was intentional but, at least for me, it made the film hard to follow. In addition this film contains no characters that are likable in the end. Every single one does something selfish or cowardly except for Kiyokawa's girlfriend who is horribly tortured but never gives him up. She doesn't make it halfway thru the film. Even the "hero" Kiyokawa ends up disturbing us.
Hard to recommend if it wasn't for the excellent performances, photography, music and action. The direction is very good but the film doesn't hold together for me by the time it's over. If you are a fan of Japanese period political dramas, it's worth a look. You might like it