Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Japan Cuts ’12 & NYAFF ’12: Scabbard Samurai

What do you get when you combine the labors of Hercules with Make Me Laugh in feudal Japan?  A disgraced samurai with a lot of deep bruising.  Yet, his dignity will take the hardest hit in Hitoshi Matsumoto’s physically demanding Jidaigeki dramedy Scabbard Samurai (trailer here), which screens this weekend as a co-presentation of the 2012 Japan Cuts and New York Asian film festivals.

Kanjuro Nomi is not even a ronin.  He is a deserter, who symbolically emptied his scabbard after his wife’s death from the plague.  He aimlessly roams the countryside with his young daughter Tae, who makes no secret of the higher expectations she had for her father.  Thanks largely to his thick head, they elude three distinctive looking bounty-hunters: O’Ryu the Shamisen Player, Pakyun the Pistol Boy, and Gori Gori the Chiropractikiller.  However, his luck runs out when the Tako Clan captures him.

Rather than a quick execution, Kanjuro will have to face the “thirty day feat.”  Like a Gong Show Scheherazade, Kanjuro has thirty days to make the lord’s emotionally catatonic son smile, or its hara-kiri time.  At first Tae is disgusted by the sight of her father performing belly dances and shoving foreign objects up his nose.  However, when his well-meaning guards start coaching him, she also gets with the program.  As his stunts become more elaborate Sisyphean exercises, the entire town rallies behind Kanjuro, but Matsumoto is not going for the easy Hollywood ending here.

Scabbard’s period details are passable enough, but they are hardly the point.  Frankly, it is hard to think of another film that mixes such liberal helpings of slapstick humor, maudlin sentiment, and high tragedy.  Yet, somehow it all blends together easily in Scabbard.  The impressively straight-faced Takaaki Nomi is quite the good sport, putting up with all sorts of Fear Factor humiliation, while managing to maintain Kanjuro’s dignified bearing.  As Tae, Sea Kumada is truly something else giving the old man what-for, but she is also shockingly good in her big dramatic scenes.  One-named actress-model Ryō also brings an icy charm to the proceedings as the lethal shamisen player.

Kanjuro is no Sanjuro, that’s for sure.  Yet there is something deeply heroic about him.  It is that unlikely integrity that gives the film such a unique spirit.  Sensitively helmed by Matsumoto, Scabbard Samurai is definitely not for the jaded, but that is what makes it such a nice surprise at the overlapping festivals.  Recommended without reservation for those who appreciate earnest father-daughter stories, as well as the odd pratfall, Scabbard Samurai screens this Saturday (7/14) as a joint-selection of the 2012 Japan Cuts and New York Asian film festivals.