A 1950s Japanese black-and-white movie came on TV while we were in Japan last week. I enthusiastically started watching it... little realising that for everyone else in the room, it was the most boring thing I could have chosen. All these languid, lyrical, impossibly restrained movies beloved by critics are also liable to be seen as a bit dull if you're actually Japanese and so don't see them as revered foreign art movies but just old-fashioned.
I later discovered that it was Ukigomu (1955), once voted as the third-greatest Japanese film of all time after The Seven Samurai and Tokyo Story.
Anyway, that kind of reaction is partly the reason why, believe it or not, Japan no longer makes many samurai films. I've been trying to watch every Japanese movie from the year 2000 and of the fifty-odd I've seen so far, none at all contain samurai unless you count Versus
. Modern Japanese audiences aren't particularly keen on the things for which their country's cinema is best-known. In this case, I agree. Samurai are boring. Thus some of the best-known recent samurai films are actually quite likely to be foreign, e.g. The Last Samurai and, believe it or not, this movie. It's Warner Bros's first Japanese-language film, although you'd never guess because it's a Japanese story shot in Japan by a Japanese director with a Japanese cast. It's clearly a prestige project for them and they've made something that, to my surprise, is rather lovely.
The story begins with samurai, but fortunately they're all about to kill themselves. The film's actually an adaptation of Shoichiro Ikemiya's 1994 novel about the 46 or 47 ronin who committed suicide at the start of the 18th century. They avenge their leader first, mind you. Afterwards, there are only two survivors: Koichi Sato and Koji Yashuko. Sato is only alive because he was given a mission. His task is to seek out the families of those fallen samurai, help them if they're in need and tell the truth about what happened. In fact he'd have preferred to die alongside his comrades, but orders are orders and so for sixteen years now he's been dutifully scouring Japan.
Yashuko on the other hand is living undercover as an antiques dealer and he hasn't told anyone about his past. He's living with a beautiful young girl, Nanami Sakuraba, whom you could think of as his adopted daughter. Her feelings aren't very daughterly, but Yashuko is either being deliberately dense or is the stupidest man on Earth. Whoah. There's some backstory there too.
Anyway, this isn't a sword-fighting movie, although it has a bit of swordplay in it. It hooked me early on with the scene where Koichi Sato gives money to a woman who's been living in poverty for sixteen years and tells her about her late husband. She cries. It's a simple scene, but it's moving because the actors are good and the director's shooting it truthfully. Slowly the film unfolds. The pace is deliberate, but I didn't mind that because I believed in the characters and their emotions. The scenes between Sakuraba and Yashuko in particular have power, especially if you think there might be something a bit dodgy about where the film might perhaps end up going with them.
In a word, it's classy. It's a proper film that happens to be set in samurai times, which occasionally makes for some disconcerting cultural assumptions. The words "lonely" and "dear" are apparently inappropriate not just from a samurai, but even from their women. You have got to be kidding me. Well, that's if Yashuko isn't being deliberately thick.
The main thing that makes me hesitant about recommending this movie is the fact that I didn't watch all of it. I was on an aeroplane and I had the choice of either finishing this (long) movie or trying to get some sleep in the hope of ameliorating my jet-lag. I went for the latter option and hence managed to get away with mild annihilation for a few hours in the afternoon for the next few days. One day I'll hopefully be able to see the rest of this movie and talk about its ending, but for now I don't see why I shouldn't wibble on for a bit about what I did see. After all, I was impressed. I hadn't been expecting to like this for the obvious reason, but in fact I thought it was of high quality.
I also liked the puppets. Was that kabuki?