NYAFF 2018: ‘Sekigahara’ Presents Incomprehensible History

by Brian Marks
Published: Last Updated on

It’s clear that Masato Harada’s Sekigahara will appeal to certain viewers, primarily Japanese history buffs or those with a predilection for samurai films. What is less clear is if anyone else will warm to a film that presents a closed off, baffling version of history that mostly remains inscrutable.

Sekigahara concerns itself with the lead up to the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, the outcome of which directly lead to the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate which ruled Japan until 1868. At the film’s start, feudal lord Hideyoshi (Kenichi Takito) is in poor health, his grip on his kingdom weakening. His samurai and confidant, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada), imagines a world after Hideyoshi built off his noblest instincts, but with a stronger focus on justice over retribution. However, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho) has his own interest in assuming Hideyoshi’s post, as well as a fierce dislike for everything about Mitsunari.

Though Harada shoots in a fairly realist style, his actors still rely on the overly dramatic huffing and puffing of classic samurai films. Although the story is based on real history, the acting style heightens the drama, but it also makes it easier to compare Sekigahara to other great Japanese period films. The movie’s preoccupation with its doddering ruler and his succession among warring factions inevitably brings to mind two of Akira Kurosawa’s late-period masterpieces, Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985). The connection is unfortunate, however, because Harada’s film is a tiny speck compared to those monumental works.

Harada’s problems originate primarily with his screenplay, based on the novel by Ryotaro Shiba, which is peppered with so many lords that the flurry of names becomes almost indistinguishable. It’s easy to suggest that the confusion is just do to a lack of familiarity with Japanese history, but this story could have easily been told while pruning some of the less important characters to better allow the story to flourish. Harada’s overly complicated work is further hurt by the film’s disjointed and almost amateur editing.

It’s worth going back to those great Kurosawa works to consider how Harada might have approached Sekigahara. Kurosawa made Shakespearean character studies; Harada is too interested in bring a textbook to life. None of his characters are given space to breathe, and the audience ends up just as suffocated as they are.

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