‘Mystery Train’’s Masatoshi Nagase gives a dignified and moving performance as Munezo, the honorable samurai of a backwater town who has carried a torch from late childhood for the lower-caste Kie (Takako Matsu), since married into a merchant family of Dickensian meanness. Yamada elaborates the changing military stance of the 1860s Tokugawa Shogunate – lots of comic business involving English rifles and Dutch cannon – but his heart lies in the distended romantic entanglement of Munezo and Kie, pushing the couple’s portrait of emotionally self-denying forebearance to the edge of Sirkian melodrama.
On the whole, however, Yamada does not succumb to stylistic flourish. Mutsuo Naganuma’s fine period cinematograpy is typically unostentatious and the climactic, cathartic action sequences are notable for their own form of realism: when Munezo is instructed by a corrupt senior retainer to kill an old friend, sentenced to a fate worse than hara-kiri for his Western-ising views, their confrontation is filmed to emphasise our quiet hero’s deep ambivalence toward violence. It’s old-fashioned fare, certainly, but only Isao Tomita’s string-based score rams that home.