IMAGINE 2012: SCABBARD SAMURAI Review

(Matsumoto never needs thirty tries to amuse his audience...)

In director Hitoshi Matsumoto's newest film "Scabbard Samurai" (original title: "Saya Samurai") a pathetic man gets thirty tries to make a child laugh, and if he fails it will be his death. It seems like the director wants to present the ultimate commentary on stand-up comedy, or even entertainment in general and given Matsumoto's previous output such a deeper layer would not be surprising. But "Scabbard Samurai" shows another aim which is generally wider than that: it honestly wants to entertain and move.

In their reviews both Guillem Rosset (link) and Niels Matthijs (link) liked it, but both warned people who were hoping for a new "Symbol" not to expect any of that. Thanks to the Imagine Film Festival in Amsterdam I have now been able to check this out for myself.

What did I think? I loved the film. Read on and I will elaborate...


The Story:

For years disgraced samurai Kanjuro has been on the run, avoiding every conflict by fleeing. He has even lost his sword and his scabbard always dangles empty by his side. His young daughter fixes him up after each narrow escape but grows ever more irritated by her father's shameful conduct.

When he is finally arrested Kanjuro is forced to commit Seppuku, the traditional samurai suicide ritual. However, the lord who has captured him grants him a final chance to avoid this fate: if Kanjuro can get the lord's son to smile within thirty days, he will be freed from punishment.
The utterly non-funny Kanjuro starts doing his best to get the little prince to laugh, but the boy is catatonically despondent after his mother's death and the task is daunting. On top of that, Kanjuro's daughter actually WANTS her father to commit Seppuku so he will for once keep his honor.
Will Kanjuro manage to prevail this time?


The Movie:

With his third film, writer/director Hitoshi Matsumoto makes a few things clear, for starters that he is an incredibly talented filmmaker. His previous films "Dai-Nipponjin" and "Symbol" sure were funny (if quite weird for most people's tastes), but especially the latter revealed that Matsumoto had more to bring to the table. The luchadore build-up showed that Matsumoto owned a good eye for detail and wasn't just good at making a gimmicky fool of himself in front of the camera. And guess what: "Symbol" wasn't a lucky shot, as it is exactly this same filmmaking talent which "Scabbard Samurai" shows in spades.

Proceedings still get a bit outlandish at times, especially when Kanjuro meets some very odd bounty hunters at the beginning of the film, but for the most part "Scabbard Samurai" plays it straight. No huge shifts in reality, no meta-tomfoolery, no winky-wink towards the audience. And Matsumoto himself never appears onscreen, unless I've missed a hidden cameo.

Instead, the largest part of the film is filled with the many different attempts to make the boy smile and these are presented in a deadpan fashion. In fact, the relentless repetition of bad idea, bad execution and failure become a hypnotic ritual in itself, strangely enough pulling the audience deeper into a proper "Bushido" feel than most straight samurai films manage to do. With his deep sense of duty and uncomplaining suffering throughout his failures, Kanjuro starts building up sympathy but also respect, and seeing this reflected in the people around him is the major source of joy in this film. It helps that the acting is damn strong as well, and that the cinematography looks beautiful enough to give you a holiday feeling.

And then we get to the end, which I will not reveal here although I'm dying to discuss it. I am so thankful that I saw this at a festival where I was able to do some major talking afterwards with the rest of the audience.
But rest assured that "Scabbard Samurai" wraps up good. Matsumoto knows how to seemingly effortlessly shift between hilarity and drama whenever necessary, and he is obviously 100% in control of the audience's feelings during the last ten minutes. And, importantly, by that time he has earned that control. I was moved.

Is "Scabbard Samurai" better than "Symbol", as I heard quite a few people say afterwards? It's a difficult (and probably meaningless) question as both films are so different. Personally I love "Symbol" more, but the fact that Hitoshi Matsumoto has the ability to create them both makes him a far better filmmaker in my book than I previously thought. I actually now think he is one of the absolute best directors currently alive, and I cannot wait to see what this genius will do next.


Conclusion:

Director Hitoshi Matsumoto continues to impress me with his sheer mastery of film as a medium, whether he is using it to show a gross-out joke, his vision of life or to simply pull your heartstrings. That he manages to do all three and make it seem effortless is a marvel, and "Scabbard Samurai" is a good example of what makes him great. Matsumoto's take on comedy and personal honor is immensely entertaining and intellectually fulfilling.
Therefore I recommend this film as hard as I can. See it!

Audiences in Amsterdam liked the film as well albeit not as much as I did on average, as they awarded the film a rating of 7.9 out of 10.


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