Meito Bijomaru (The Famous Sword Bijomaru) is a 1945 film by director and screenwriter Kenji Mizoguchi. Kiyone Sakurai forges a sword for his benefactor, Kozaemon Onoda, a sword that shatters while Onoda is defending his lord. He is placed under house arrest for his failure to protect the lord's palanquin, then Naito tells Onoda that he can help restore Onoda's honor so long as he can wed Onoda's daughter's, Sasae, and when Onoda refuses, Naito slices him dead.
Sasae instructs Kiyone to make another sword, to avenge her father’s death. But Kiyone, overcome with guilt, commits suicide by seppuku. His dying request is that his soul be used in the making of a new sword to avenge Onoda. Eventually, the sword is made, and it's Sasae (a woman!) who fights Naito to the end in a remarkably well-timed and carefully choreographed scene, with pyrotechnics no less.
There is a lot of cinematic beauty in the film, with incredible framing and outdoor scenes at night as well as shots of sparks flying as the swordsmiths hammer away by the fire. Mizoguchi's famous long takes allow us time to reflect on what has transpired, while at the same time we're able to read slowly the mise-en-scène, which not only creates atmosphere but on some level plays a role itself. In one such instance, we're given two long takes of a space surrounded by shoji screens, which are hanging off their rails after a sword fight between the authorities and ronin. This destruction which remains after the battle is left for us to ponder without distraction of movement or sound, and I wonder if it could also be viewed as a symbolic representation of Japan in tatters nearing the war's end.
There are elements of propaganda as well. Considering the film was made in 1945, I expected the doctrine to be blatant, and yet it's not overbearing, at least not to the point where we can no longer take the storyline seriously or to where we cannot appreciate the film's artistry. The more pronounced propaganda comes in just a couple spurts, such as in messages about loyalty and devotion to the emperor, like:
"By being born in this country, we follow the way of the subject, which is loyalty and self-sacrifice. This is nothing heroic. It is serving the emperor. The emperor encourages the young generations and allows rewards to mourning families. Such is the imperial government. One must not conspicuously brag. And certainly not when the deeds aren't amazing. One must restrain himself of any envy. And model his behavior on previous generations."
The sword as a symbol of strength, and the embodiment of ancestral spirits, at a time when Japan was facing defeat, makes the film quite historically significant. The swordmakers try and try again to produce a weapon that's unbreakable, realizing they must do it on their own, without the help of outsiders, but with heart, and also with their master's soul. "We won't make it!" one cries, and the other berates him with, "Stop whining!" and then a transparent Sasae (her soul) starts hammering away with the men. The message is clear: Only together, with heart and soul, can the powerful Japanese spirit survive and transcend, only then can it be victorious.