Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Tatara Samurai: Blood and Steel in 16th Century Japan

Gosuke wants something very American: upward social mobility. Sadly, he is born of peasant stock in 16th Century Japan. Frankly, as the heir to the village’s prestigious steel smithy, Gosuke is in a better position than most of his fellow commoners, but he will give it all up to join Oda Nobunaga’s forces in hopes of becoming a full-fledged bushido warrior in director-screenwriter Yoshinari Nishikôri’s Tatara Samurai (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Only the Murage knows the secrets that give Tatara steel such strength. Gosuke’s father has just assumed the mantle, so it is time for Gosuke’s training to begin in earnest. However, the young man wants more than a quiet life in Tatara. He is also haunted by childhood memories of the ronin who attacked his village before Lord Shinnosuke and his samurai arrived like the cavalry. Since then, the peasant’s constant state of vulnerability has unnerved him.

Hearing Oda will reward bravery within his ranks with samurai titles, Gosuke sets out to enlist. Unfortunately, he accepts the help of an unscrupulous merchant to help facilitate his military service. Not so surprisingly, the only thing battle-worthy about Gosuke is the sword he had forged from Tatara steel. Despite washing out, Gosuke is still in debt to the cunning Yohei, who will try to collect in a most Faustian manner.

Tatara is a terrific old school, pre-Edo Jidaigeki that nicely balances swordplay action with a thoughtful meditation on the Bushido code. It is a sweeping story that seamlessly incorporates actual events surrounding Oda’s unification campaign and eventual betrayal. Frankly, Shô Aoyagi’s Gosuke is a somewhat unsympathetic character (at least until he learns better), but he is surrounded by a rich cast of complex characters. Naoki Kobayashi broods like a champion as Gosuke’s shrewder boyhood friend Shimpei, who is also considerably handier with a sword. Anna Ishii is quite poignant as Okuni, the fiancée he leaves behind, while Masahiro Komoto radiates tragic dignity as Gosuke’s father. Akira lends stately steeliness to the proceedings as Lord Shinnosuke and Tomoko Tabata adds plenty of energy and verve as his chief spy.

In many ways, Tatara Samurai serves as the anti-Seven Samurai. Yet, there is still plenty of virtue and heroism to be found in the film, as well as a healthy respect for tradition. Arguably, it could almost be considered Burkean for its acceptance and defense of class distinctions. Perhaps most importantly, Nishikôri’s characterizations are multifaceted and acutely human, while action director Yoshio Iizuka’s fight scenes are stirringly cinematic. Highly recommended for fans of both action movies and historical dramas, Tatara Samurai opens for a full week this Friday (6/2) in Los Angeles at the Regal L.A. Live and screens Monday (6/5) in New York, at the Village East. Check Eleven Arts’ website for more cities and dates.