Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: The Magnificent Nine

During the late 1500’s the Seven Samurai used swords to defend a beleaguered village. Three hundred years later, the pillars of an oppressed post-town will use accounting as their weapon of choice. Their plan to save their community will take years to implement and will cost some members dearly, but desperate times require desperate measures in Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The Magnificent Nine (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Tokuheiji Sugawaraya has just returned to his provincial home with a new bride and an official license for his prospective tea farm. However, as a resident of a “post-town,” he is responsible for his share of the costs conveying their lord’s shipments to the next unfortunate post-town. It is a crushing burden that has reduced their community to a virtual ghost town. Over sake, Sugawaraya hatches a hair-brained scheme and he quickly dismisses, but desperate merchant Juzaburo Kokudaya takes it to heart. Eventually, Kokudaya convinces Sugawaraya and seven progressive town fathers to pursue the plan in earnest.

Since the lord is clearly strapped for cash, the townsmen intend to loan him one thousand silver ryo. The annual interest of one hundred silver ryo would cover the cost of horses and labor necessary to uphold the town’s post duties. Essentially, the loan would act as an endowment. Of course, scrounging up that much money is no easy feat for the profoundly depressed community. Even if they do, the plan holds rather bold social implications, which could prove fatal if not handled delicately.

Magnificent is a terrific little fable (albeit one that runs over two hours) that has bookkeeping skills and a warm, generous heart. Kokudaya is an acutely humanistic character, whose Kane-and-Abel sibling rivalry with the miserly Jinnai Asanoya develops in surprising and deeply satisfying ways. As the black sheep brother, Satoshi Tsumabuki is rigorously understated, but he still manages to steal the spotlight during the third act. Eita’s Sugawaraya is also an engagingly earnest late Edo everyman. The one downside is the relative paucity of strong women characters, but Yuko Takeuchi nicely represents as Toki, the straight-talking sake-house proprietor and co-conspirator.

This is a charming film that perfectly balances the sweet and the tart. It also happens to be a film with samurai, but no violence or suicide-inspiring tragic romances. Its heroes are the common man, who might just find deliverance through interest income. That is a message worth heeding. Very highly recommended, The Magnificent Nine screens this Saturday (7/16) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts 2016.