Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed May 31, 2017 4:20 pm 
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A brave blacksmith finds his inner samurai in a wedding of craft and virtue

Tatara Samurai is an unusually contemplative martial arts movie, also a beautiful one with exquisite landscapes and satisfyingly clear sword battles in which every stroke is distinctive. It's also another deconstruction of the samurai ideal. The hero Gosuke (Shô Aoyagi) discovers it is better to be a traditional artisan than a samurai, and he returns to practice his ancestral calling of murage, blacksmith, forging superb, stainless steel in Tatara Village after an attempt to go out to fight to defend the town from marauders. "My very existence is being sustained," he declares in a meditative voiceover at the end, "I surrender myself to the flow of nature. Yielding to divine will. Letting be all that is around me." He is becoming one with bushido, the Japanese spirit - the real subject of this film.

It's the Sengoku Period, the late sixteenth century, the brief time when the Japanese were to develop matchlock rifles, which we see people learn how to use. There is a sense that the sword may become obsolete - or it may not; for quite some time it didn't. The film is notable for its physicality, the authenticity of the crafts it shows in action. And it is an advertisement for traditional Japanese village life. It is not ironic, and as it is beautiful, it is, one supposes, a little humorless.

The fine Tatara-buki steel-making technique of the Shimane Prefecture seen in this film is perhaps ideal for these rifles, but more truly has its value for traditional samurai swords also, of course. It is in demand, and that's why the village is threatened. You sense that Gosuke, with his sensitive face and big eyes and his inner calm, is not suited to sword fighting, but when the town's leading swordsman is slain, Gosuke wants to fight, and works out alone enthusiastically with a wooden sword. Through a wily old merchant, Sobei (Takashi Sasano), Gosuke meets Yohei (Masahiko Tsugawa), who sets him up to meet someone from the honored Oda Army. Gosuke makes the journey gladly.

The film's most intense conflict is between Yohei and Shinpei (Naoki Kobayashi), Gosuke's childhood playmate, who comes from a noble martial tradition. While Yohei says rifles are the coming thing and will be the only way to defend the village, Shinpei warns against this idea and suspects it conceals a plan to betray the villagers.

When he arrives at the military camp and presents himself for service Gosuke is judged as having "good bearing" and accepted into the army. Bu he is unable to function in battle, and is plunged into fighting right away. It's a wonder he survives. He soon leaves Senkichi, his new friend, and returns home. There, he feels humiliated. But he is greeted by some thankfully, for many of his friends and family are delighted that he is still alive. It was never thought he would be. (The women in the film are mostly silent, but they are present and caring, wishing there could be an end to war and killing.)

Later Shinpei goes away, seemingly joining the enemy. Actually he is perhaps carrying out a kind of counter intelligence. But when he reappears, Yohei takes advantage of his somewhat mysterious absence to call him a traitor. And then something horrible and rather inexplicable happens. While the villagers are preparing to ward off invaders, building ramparts and lookouts to repel an armed attack, the town is peacefully infiltrated by men who say they are coming to protect them. Thus they are betrayed, and in the midst of this the local leader, Shinnosuki (Akira) is shot in cold blood by Yohei. After these betrayals and confusions Gosuke realizes the essence of the samurai - honor and compassion - dwelled within him all along, and that he can best serve his ancestors and his region by being a murage and making fine steel.

A fundamental principle of a good action film is that it needs to take a breaher from time to time, and Tatara Samurai excels in this. A typical moment shows Gosuke quite still, thinking. He is listening to his inner nature and to the universe. But though there are no grand and super-violent sequences of sword fighting, there are some individual sword fights, particularly one, in which there is a delicious surprise ending where the bad guy turns out to have been run through while just missing the throat of his village opponent. This is one of several fights in which every blow counts - something almost never achieved in American blockbusters today. Nishikôri's film is all about authenticity.

But there is a lot going on, and we don't necessarily grasp all of it the first time. This is a movie about vocation and inner duty that only appears to be a movie about sword fighting and betrayals. How can we understand the standoff between Lord Oda, and his subordinate, Hideyoshi, that deepens - so that Gosuke finds himself in the middle of the conflict? But Gosuke is always there, and when Yohei slaughters Shinnosuke, he has his finest, and most astonishing and symbolic moment, when he steps forward and - both brave and effective for once - attacks Yohei with his own finely bladed sword - and slices Yohei's rifle in half - leaving him astonished and humiliated. He need do little more. It is a triumphant moment for Gosuke, for the sword, and for the art of murage and the village's special superior steel. Knife cuts rifle!

Other cast members include Tomoko Tabata as Okyo, Anna Ishii as Okuni, and Kei Yamamoto as the village mayor. Kudos to director of photography Akira Sako. The movie feels unusually authentic because it was all shot - on film , with vintage Panavision lenses- on location at a traditional village constructed for the shoot, including a traditional forge, which we see being built, where Tamahagane/Tatara steel was actually produced, director Nishikôri explained in an interview. The director of photography was always ready to capture striking natural landscapes and skyscapes and there are some spectacular, but never cliched, ones.

Tatara Samurai, 120 mins. (there is also a 135 min. version), debuted at numerous small festivals in the US, as well as in Japan. It opens from Eleven Arts at many US theatrical venues June 2, 2017, including New People Cinema in Japan Center in San Francisco.


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