Sitges 2011: SAYA ZAMURAI (SCABBARD SAMURAI) Review

Coming from the man responsible for Big Man Japan and Symbol, I didn't know what to expect from Scabbard Samurai, the latest film of Japanese director Hitoshi Matsumoto. The premise of the film goes like this: Kanjuro Nomi is a samurai with no sword, he only keeps its scabbard. After the death of her wife, he decided to completely give up violence and embarked on a trip with his daughter Tae, becoming a deserter in the process. After running for a while, he's caught by an eccentric feudal lord who offers him a chance to save his life: Kanjuro has exactly thirty days to try to bring back the smile of the lord's son, who hasn't smiled since the passing of his mother. If he's unable to do it, he'd have no choice but to commit seppuku, the samurai's suicide ritual.

It certainly seems an interesting premise, pretty different from what we've come to expect from a samurai film, right? Moving away - at least a little - from the more bizarre elements of his previous films, here Matsumoto delivers what seems to be a pretty light hearted comedy right from the start. Featuring a wonderful array of colorful and charming characters, the comedy works really well. For the most part, the film revolves about each of Kanjuro's thirty attempts to make the child smile, Kanjuro progressively gaining the support of the people around him - namely both of his captors - in the process. So each scene becomes a visual gag on its own, with the audience waiting to see what's the next crazy idea. It's easy to draw comparisons with Kitano's Kikujiro as both films mix the immediate humor of visual slapstick with the growing relationship between an adult and a child.

But even being a kind of familiar comedy, you can't help but notice some of Matsumoto's personal touches here and there. I don't want to spoil anything, but I'm pretty sure some people will be surprised by the film's ending, adding a dramatic twist the kind you'd only come to expect in a Japanese comedy. Without a doubt, Scabbard Samurai has become a very pleasant surprise for me. Maybe not what I was expecting after Symbol, but a great experience nonetheless.

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