Sekigahara (関ヶ原, Masato Harada, 2017)

Sekigahara posterWhen considering a before and an after, you’d be hard pressed to find a moment as perfectly situated as the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原). Taking place on 21st October 1600 (by the Western calendar), Sekigahara came at the end of a long and drawn out process of consolidation and finally ended the Sengoku (or “warring states”) era, paving the way for the modern concept of “Japan” as a distinct and unified nation. In actuality there were three unifiers of Japan – the first being Oda Nobunaga who brought much of Japan under his control before being betrayed by one of his own retainers. The second, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, continued Oda’s work and died a peaceful death leaving a son too young behind him which created a power vacuum and paved the way for our third and final creator of the modern Japanese state – Tokugawa Ieyasu whose dynasty would last 260 years encompassing the lengthy period of isolation that was finally ended by the tall black ships and some gunboat diplomacy.

Loosely, we begin our tale towards the end of the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Kenichi Takito) though, in a nod to the novel, director Masato Harada includes a temporal framing sequence in which our author depicts himself as a boy during another war sitting in these same halls and hearing stories of heroes past. As well he might given where he was sitting, the narrator reframes his tale – our hero is not the eventual victor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, but a noble hearted retainer of the Toyotomi, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada).

Riding into battle, Mitsunari reminds his men that this is a war of “justice and injustice” – they cannot lose. Yet lose they do. The narrator recounts Mitsunari’s improbable rise as an orphan taken in by Hideyoshi on a whim who nevertheless became one of the most powerful men in late 16th century Japan. Despite his loyalty to his master, Mitsunari cannot abide the cruelty of the samurai world or its various modes of oppression both in terms of social class and even in terms of gender. He resents the subversion of samurai ethics to facilitate “politics” and longs to restore honour, justice, and fairness to a world ruled by chaos. Rather than the bloody uncertainty and self-centred politicking that define his era, Mitsunari hopes to enshrine these values as the guiding principles of his nation.

On the other hand, his opponent, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho) is famed for his intelligence and particularly for his political skill. Hoping to swoop into the spot vacated by Hideyoshi which his young son Hideyori is too weak to occupy, Ieyasu has been playing a long game of winning alliances and disrupting those other candidates had assumed they had secured. Unlike Mitsunari, Ieyasu is ruthless and prepared to sacrifice all to win his hand, caring little for honour or justice or true human feeling.

The framing sequence now seems a little more pointed. Sekigahara becomes a turning point not just of political but ideological consolidation in which Mitsunari’s ideas of just rule and compassionate fair mindedness creating order from chaos are relegated to the romantic past while self interest triumphs in the rule of soulless politickers which, it seems, travels on through the ages to find its zenith in the age of militarism. Mitsunari is the last good man, prepared to die for his ideals but equally prepared to live for them. His tragedy is romantic in the grander sense but also in the more obvious one in that his innate honour code will not let him act on the love he feels for a poor girl displaced from Iga whose ninja service becomes invaluable to his plan. With a wife and children to consider, he would not commit the “injustice” of creating a concubine but dreams of one day, after all this is over, resigning his name and position and travelling to foreign lands with the woman he loves at his side.

Working on a scale unseen since the age of Kurosawa, Harada patiently lays the groundwork before condensing the six hours of battle to forty minutes of fury. The contrast between the purity of the past and the muddied future is once again thrown into stark relief in the vastly different strategies of Ieyasu and Mitsunari with Ieyasu’s troops armed to the teeth with modernity – they fire muskets and shout cannon commands in Portuguese while Mitsunari’s veteran warriors attempt to face them with only their pikes and wooden shields. Unable to adapt to “modern” warfare and trusting too deeply in the loyalty of his comrades, Mitsunari’s final blow comes not by will but by chance as a young and inexperienced vassal vacillates until his men make his decision for him, betraying an alliance he may have wished (in his heart) to maintain. Goodness dies a bloody death, but there is peace at last even if it comes at a price. That price, for some at least, may have been too great.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2011)

scabbard samuraiA samurai’s soul in his sword, so they say. What is a samurai once he’s been reduced to selling the symbol of his status? According to Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Sayazamurai) not much of anything at all, yet perhaps there’s another way of defining yourself in keeping with the established code even when robbed of your equipment. Hitoshi Matsumoto, one of Japan’s best known comedians, made a name for himself with the surreal comedies Big Man Japan and Symbol but takes a low-key turn in Scabbard Samurai, stepping back in time but also in comedic tastes as the hero tests his mettle as a showman in a high stakes game of life and death.

Nomi Kanjuro (Takaaki Nomi) is a samurai on the run. Wandering with an empty scabbard hanging at his side, he pushes on into the wilderness with his nine year old daughter Tae (Sea Kumada) grumpily traipsing behind him. Eventually, Nomi is attacked by a series of assassins but rather than heroically fighting back as any other jidaigeki hero might, he runs off into the bushes screaming hysterically. Nomi and Tae are then captured by a local lord but rather than the usual punishment for escapee retainers, Nomi is given an opportunity to earn his freedom if only he can make the lord’s sad little boy smile again before the time is up.

Nomi is not exactly a natural comedian. He’s as sullen and passive as the little lord he’s supposed to entertain yet he does try to come up with the kind of ideas which might amuse bored children. Given one opportunity to impress every day for a period of thirty days, Nomi starts off with the regular dad stuff like sticking oranges on his eyes or dancing around with a face drawn on his chest but the melancholy child remains impassive. By turns, Nomi’s ideas become more complex as the guards (Itsuji Itao and Tokio Emoto) begin to take an interest and help him plan his next attempts. Before long Nomi is jumping naked through flaming barrels, being shot out of cannons, and performing as a human firework but all to no avail.

Meanwhile, Tae looks on with contempt as her useless father continues to embarrass them both on an increasingly large stage. Tae’s harsh words express her disappointment with in Nomi, berating him for running away, abandoning his sword and with it his samurai honour, and exposing him as a failure by the code in which she has been raised. She watches her father’s attempts at humour with exasperation, unsurprised that he’s failed once again. Later striking up a friendship with the guards Tae begins to get more involved, finally becoming an ally and ringmaster for her father’s newfound career as an artist.

Tae and the orphaned little boy share the same sorrow in having lost their mothers to illness and it’s her contribution that perhaps begins to reawaken his talent for joy. Nomi’s attempts at comedy largely fall flat but the nature of his battle turns out to be a different one than anyone expected. Tae eventually comes around to her father’s fecklessness thanks to his determination, realising that he’s been fighting on without a sword for all this time and if that’s not samurai spirit, what is? Nomi makes a decision to save his honour, sending a heartfelt letter to his little girl instructing her to live her life to the fullest, delivering a message he was unable to express in words but only in his deeds.

Matsumoto’s approach is less surreal here and his comedy more of a vaudeville than an absurd kind, cannons and mechanical horses notwithstanding. The story of a scabbard samurai is the story of an empty man whose soul followed his wife, leaving his vacant body to wander aimlessly looking for an exit. Intentionally flat comedy gives way to an oddly moving finale in which a man finds his redemption and his release in the most unexpected of ways but makes sure to pass that same liberation on to his daughter who has come to realise that her father embodies the true samurai spirit in his righteous perseverance. Laughter and tears, Scabbard Samurai states the case for the interdependence of joy and sorrow, yet even if it makes plain that kindness and understanding are worth more than superficial attempts at humour it also allows that comedy can be the bridge that spans a chasm of despair, even if accidentally.


Currently streaming on Mubi

Original trailer (no subtitles)