This movie is as gorgeous as is gritty and that´s a great plus for me. It brings back to life a very interesting era in the japanese history (although, I must admit, one that has been shown in many movies) and treats it with respect in a disrespectful way. I´ll try to explain this: it´s like thinking of all the stupid things that your old buddies did when you were young with all the love for them. The samurai code is depicted as it really was instead as a romantic remembrance of it. In the main character´s words: "[...] this thing we call samurai honor is ultimately nothing but a facade."
It´s an anti-stablishment movie as well. The samurai code and the shogunate structure betrays nearly a whole generation of the low-nobility. They were raised and prepared to execute a duty and maintain the highest level of cultural and moral decorum possible but the weather changes (for better, mind you) and they find themselves dispensable, useless and plain broke. They cant work as lowmen but they cant serve as samurai either.
Returning to the movie itself it's a great character study first and a gritty drama second. The center of the story is the development that the main characters, the good guys, have to endure. Here I find one of the first little problems as I think that the way the change from their old proud shelf to desperation is not worked enough but it´s there. Anyway the main cast show a great thespian work. Tatsuya Nakadai´s work is one of the best in the movie but overall there´s not a bad actor here.
The characters are interesting though limited. The only ones with some complexity are Tsugumo and Chijiiwa, the first more than the second. The way Nakadai treats his grandson, his desperation, his guilt and his determination through the movie makes him one of the greatests heroes in the history of film´s vengeances. Even his character is somewhat restricted and simple, though, and the rest of them tend to be even more monocromatic than the black and white the movie was shot in. This works magnificiently here so it´s not really a problem but I wonder if a bit more complexity in some characters (for example the main antagonist, the karo in who´s house so many people want to suicide) wouldn´t have helped.
I´ll talk about some problems that do exist although they are not really that bad. One of them is the pace and lenght of the movie. It´s a slow movie where the tension builds up nicely cooking it on a low flame. It´s not a movie where you should just wait for the climax to come since the moment you decide that you hate the bad guys (that happens near the beginning and you have a long hour and a half before the blood cries havoc). If you dont enjoy the backstory and tension throughout the movie you will grow bored soon. Even if you aren´t just waiting for the climax to come I feel the movie lingers too much before chaos breaks loose. There are more than one scene that felt too long even though there´s no one that isn´t necessary.
The second problem, one that it´s just too obvious to ignore even if it´s not important, it´s the unplausability of the action. When swords shine and blood is finally shed there is more than one moment where you can´t believe what you are watching even if you try to enforce all your suspension of disbelieve strenght. It´s really a problem? I dont find it so bad but it´s a problem. The focus is in the beauty and intensity of the shots not in the credibility of the swordmanship. There are some really intense, gorgeous, moments while they fight but the actual fight get´s in the way.
One of the best aspects of the movie is the beauty and quality of the camerawork. The actors give life to intense characters but the way they are shot and lighted makes a great difference. One of the most beautifull moments of the movie is the main duel. It brings the spectators out of the main locations (80 % of the scenes in the movie are shot in 3 rooms) and that gives it a special magic as if you were watching something sureal. They walk through a 'crowded' cementary and a bamboo forest to a windy hill where they fight as if they weren´t just people but godly heroes. The intesity of the wind in the hills transforms the not-so-good fighting scene in something way better, wilder and powerful.
This is really close to a masterpiece. They take an interesting premise, they add some twists that really work, a marvellous setting, some great actors very well directed and also bring some moral issues in the mix. It´s not easy to give such an universal edge to a movie so centered in a particular, and gritty, aspect of the old japanese culture.
A great, great, movie.