Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat May 19, 2012 3:45 am 
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Shaggy samurai story

This odd mixture from Japan went into French release (as Saya Zamuraï , a transliteration of the Japanese title) May 9, 2012 and, perhaps because it reads sort of like a conceptual piece, received enough enthusiastic reviews to give it a 3.4 Allociné "press" rating. If you ask me, the Variety critic Leslie Felperin's suggestion that this "could provide a plausible vehicle for a remake for someone like Terry Gilliam, albeit on a bigger budget," is crazy, or at the least a bad idea. How this series of visual jokes that fizzle could make a successful movie eludes me.

Hitoshi Matsumoto is a former TV comic turned director and this is his third film. The setting is historical, and the protagonist is yet another run down samurai. This one, a prune-faced and bespectacled chap called Kanjuro Nomi (Takaaki Nomi) is wandering the country with his feisty little daughter Tae (Sea Kumada). After the death of his wife in an epidemic he has become so despondent he can no longer fight and has abandoned his sword, carrying only the scabbard of the title.

At the outset the jokey nature of most of the proceedings becomes evident when Nomi is unsuccessfully attacked by a series of comical enemies who seem pasted-on apparitions -- a Shamisen Player (Ryo), Pakyun the Pistol Boy (Rolly), and Gori Gori the Chiropractikiller (Fukkin Zen-Nosuke). The latter swoops down from above and tries to twist Nomi's neck around. There's a call out for Nomi's arrest (what for? disgracing the samurai code?) and he's arrested and put into the custody of the Lord of the Tako Clan (Jun Kanimura). The Lord locks up Nori and gives him a job. He has 30 days to try to make his son, gloomy since the death of his mom from the same epidemic that killed Tae's, crack a smile. If Nomi succeeds, he'll be set free. If he fails, he mus commit seppuku.

Tae and Nori's two jailers (Itsuji Itao and Tokio Emoto) act as coaches as Nori makes up a long series of gags or stunts, ranging from sticking vegetables up his nose to inhaling a noodle to being shot from a cannon.

There is an obvious link between the Taki clan Lord's son and Tae, and Tae eventually sneaks in and visits the son and tells him he's also like her father.

There is a tradition of prune-faced bespectacled Japanese characters; I recall one as a colleague of Watanabe at the city hall office in Kurosawa's Ikiru. Mark Schilling of Japan Times compares him to Buster Keaton. [/i] Nomi's deadpan doggedness must have something very Japanese about it. The trouble is that the daily stunts, which as Felperin puts it have a certain "Rube Goldberg" quality -- if of a somewhat flabby quality level, aren't necessarily funnier to us than they are to the Clan Lord's son. Schilling, who as usual provides knowledgeable insight, suggests the stunts' progression "cleverly illustrate what might be called the history of comedy in Japan," basically just from the simple to the more complex now seen on Japanese TV variety shows today. Tae is a stern critic of her father at first, but as she bends to the task she starts being more on his side, as is a growing public audience at his stunts. Tae may be symbolic of how the samurai moral code is passed from generation to generation and inspires even the weak.

Aside from the slowness and unfunniness of the gag progression, the other big trouble with this film is that things turn grim, bloody, and eventually sentimental and preachy toward the end of this long ordeal, which in itself we hardly know how to take. This doesn't seem quite sufficient material for a feature movie.

Since Matsumoto's films have popular routes but fail to appeal particularly to the popular audience, it might be interesting to compare him to Kitano. But Kitano has a wild imagination and an original style, even when his movies don't work. Despite decent production values, costumes, sets, etc., Saya-samurai is basically a pretty stupid and boring film.

Scabbard Samurai, billed as Saya Zamuraï, debuted at the Tokyo Downtown Cool Media Festival, having its western fest start at Locarno, followed by other fests. France is the only country where it has been released theatrically other than Japan.

Screened for this review at MK2 Beaubourg, Paris, MAy 18, 2012.

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