Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2010)

sketches of kaitan cityYasushi Sato, a Hakodate native, has provided the source material for some of the best films of recent times including Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There and Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Over the Fence but it has to be said that his world view is anything but positive. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri takes on Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kaitanshi Jokei) inspired by a collection of short stories left unfinished on Sato’s death by suicide in 1990. Despite the late bubble era setting of the stories (now updated to the present day), his Kaitan (eerily close to the real life Hakodate) is a place of decline and hopelessness, populated by the disillusioned and despairing.

The first story concerns a brother and sister whose lives have been defined by the local shipbuilding industry. Since their father was killed in a dockside fire, older brother Futa (Pistol Takehara) has been taking care of his little sister Honami (Mitsuki Tanimura) and now works at the docks himself. Times being what they are, the company is planning to close three docks with mass layoffs inevitable. The workers strike but are unable to win more than minor concessions leaving Futa unable to continue providing for himself or his sister.

Similar tales of societal indifference follow as an old lady living alone with her beloved cat is hounded by a developer (Takashi Yamanaka) desperate to buy her home. Across town the owner of the planetarium (Kaoru Kobayashi) is living a life of quiet desperation, suspecting that his bar hostess wife (Kaho Minami) is having an affair. Meanwhile a gas canister salesman (Ryo Kase) is trying to branch out but having little success, and a tram driver dwells on his relationship with his estranged son.

Economic and social concerns become intertwined as increasing financial instability chips away at the foundations of otherwise sound family bonds. Futa’s situation is one of true desperation now that he’s lost the only job he’s ever had and is ill equipped to get a new one even if there were anything going in this town which revolves entirely around its port.

Yet other familial bonds are far from sound to begin with. The gas canister salesman, going against his father’s wishes in trying to diversify with a series of water purifiers he believes will be a guaranteed earner because of the need to replace filters, takes out his various frustrations through astonishing acts of violence against his wife who then passes on the legacy of abuse to his son, Akira (You Koyama). Resentful towards his father and embarrassed by his lack of success with the water filters, the gas canister salesman threatens to explode but unexpectedly finding himself on the receiving end of violence, he is forced into a reconsideration of his way of life – saving one family member, but perhaps betraying another.

The gas canister salesman is not the only one to have a difficult relationship with his child. The planetarium owner cannot seem to connect with his own sullen offspring and is treated like an exile within his own home while the tram driver no longer speaks to his son who is apparently still angry and embarrassed that his mother worked in a hostess bar.

Yet for all of this real world disillusionment, despair takes on a poetic quality as the planetarium owner spends his days literally staring at the stars – even if they are fake. The gas canister salesman’s son, Akira, becomes a frequent visitor, excited by the idea of the telescope and dreaming of a better, far away world only to have his hopes literally dashed by his parents, themselves already teetering on the brink of an abyss. Futa’s lifelong love has been with shipping – the company officials are keen to sell the line that it’s all about the boats and an early scene of jubilation following the launch of a recently completed vessel would seem to bear that out, but when it comes down to it the values are far less pure than a simple love of craftsmanship. Kaitan City is a place where dreams go to die and hope is a double edged sword.

There are, however, small shoots of positivity. The old lady welcomes her cat back into her arms, discovering that it is pregnant and stroking it gently, reassuring it that everything will be OK and she will take care of the new cat family. Signs of life appear, even if drowned out by the noise of ancient engines and the sound of the future marching quickly in the opposite direction. Bleak yet beautifully photographed, Sketches of Kaitan City perfectly captures the post-industrial malaise and growing despair of those excluded from economic prosperity, left with nothing other than false promises and misplaced hope to guide the way towards some kind of survival.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Little Runaway (小さい逃亡者, Eduard Bocharov & Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1966)

The little runawayTeinosuke Kinugasa maybe best known for his avant-garde masterpiece The page of Madness even if his subsequent work leant towards a more commercial direction. His final film is just as unusual, though perhaps for different reason. In 1966, Kinugasa co-directed The Little Runaway (小さい逃亡者, Chiisai Tobosha) with Russian director Eduard Bocharov in the first of such collaborations ever created. Truth be told, aside from the geographical proximity, the Japan of 1966 could not be more different from its Soviet counterpart as the Eastern block remained mired in the “cold war” while Japan raced ahead towards its very own, capitalist, economic miracle. Perhaps looking at both sides with kind eyes, The Little Runaway has its heart in the right place with its messages of the universality of human goodness and endurance but broadly makes a success of them if failing to disguise the obvious propaganda gloss.

Little Ken (Chiharu Inayoshi) is ten years old and lives with his violinist uncle, Nobuyuki (Jukichi Uno). Ken has obvious talent at the violin and, like most kids in this rundown area, his drunken uncle has roped him into helping out for a few extra pennies. One fateful night, Nobuyuki has tied one on and lets slip that Ken’s dad might not be dead, but stuck in a hospital in Moscow. Soon enough a Russian circus comes to town and Ken strikes up a strange friendship with the kindly clown, eventually stowing away to the Soviet Union to look for his long lost father.

From one point of view, The Little Runaway conforms to a certain type of family drama which centres on the disconnect between a father and a son. Ken feels abandoned (no reference is ever made to his mother), though he loves and respects the uncle who takes care of him even if recognising his standard of care often leaves a lot to be desired. His desire to find his father is not so much motivated by unhappiness (his life is difficult but it’s the only one he’s ever known), but by the desire for answers as regards his own ancestry and the emotional need to reconnect with the biological father he no longer remembers clearly.

From another point of view, The Little Runaway conforms to the genre of children’s cinema in its close following of Ken’s quest. With no word of warning, Ken takes off for Russia as if he were simply going to check out a neighbouring town. Unaware of the political context and hoping to use his friendship with the circus troupe to his advantage Ken stows away on a boat headed for the USSR, but his clowning friends aren’t on it and he doesn’t speak any Russian.

The central tenet of the story is that there are kind people everywhere willing to help a determined little boy with melancholy eyes. Ken manages to get to Russia but then escapes his “escort”, hoping to travel to the capital faster. Wandering through the empty landscape, he chances into a house and makes friends with a peasant boy who introduces him to his wider family and a man with many daughters who could use a son just like Ken. Ken also tries to support himself by taking casual work as a labourer, having learnt the Russian word for such a job and repeatedly emphasising it, trying to assure them that he’s stronger than his appearance suggests.

Despite not speaking the language Ken manages to make himself understood through sand paintings, though the Russians he meets are all eager to share their food and shelter with him without much by way of explanation. As might be expected, the Russia depicted may not be particularly realistic, the officials are kind and jovial, the streets are clean, the people healthy and happy, and you can even buy Moscow cigarettes from woman running a stand in the square. The Japan Ken knows, by contrast, is one down at heels in which children are being pressed into shady forms of employment from Ken’s violin playing to little girls selling flowers on the street.

Depicting events from an innocent, child’s eye view, The Little Runaway finds only goodness rather than political anxiety but it is quick to emphasis the importance of helping those in need as the clown later avows. More or less straightforward in shooting style, Little Runaway is more intent on seeing the virtues of the cooperation between the Soviet block and the burgeoning Japanese economy than resolving its central mystery but nevertheless provides another welcome addition to the plucky child adventure genre while urging a kind of universal kindness probably not much in evidence in the real life Tokyo or Moscow of 1966.


Original Japanese trailer (no subtitles)

The Tale of Nishino (ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険, Nami Iguchi, 2014)

tale of nishinoEvery love story is a ghost story, as the aphorism made popular (though not perhaps coined) by David Foster Wallace goes. For The Tale of Nishio (ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険, Nishino Yukihiko no Koi to Boken), adapted from the novel by Hiromi Kawakami, this is a literal truth as the hero dies not long after the film begins and then returns to visit an old lover, only to find her gone, having ghosted her own family including a now teenage daughter. The Japanese title, which is identical to Kawakami’s novel, means something more like Yukihiko Nishino’s Adventures in Love which might give more of an indication into his repeated failures to find the “normal” family life he apparently sought, but then his life is a kind of cautionary tale offered up as a fable. What looks like kindness sometimes isn’t, and things done for others can in fact be for the most selfish of reasons.

Ten years prior to his death in a traffic accident, Yukihiko Nishino (Yutaka Takenouchi) has taken a (former?) lover and her little girl out for drinks and parfait at a lovely seaside cafe. The woman, Natsumi (Kumiko Aso), declines the offer of dessert but Nishino orders two anyway – one for himself and one for the little girl, Minami, though it seems neither of them really wanted one anyway. An odd flirtation exists between the adults but Nishino laments his ability to gain exactly what this situation might look like from the outside – a “normal” family. He wants to get married, have a daughter of his own, but his relationships always end in failure. Natsumi tells him why – he always gives women exactly what they want, which sounds good, but really isn’t.

Nishino’s problem is that he’s almost irresistible to women, but sooner or later they all leave him. He believes he has an almost telepathic ability to figure out what it is women want from him coupled with an intense need to satisfy their innermost desires. Ironically enough, it’s this strange kindness that eventually leads to his death when he runs into an old friend at a crowded marketplace. Excited to see him she calls and waves, dropping her shopping and losing one of her crutches in the process. Rushing to help, Nishino does not see an oncoming van and is run over. Quite literally the story of his life.

Reappearing as a ghost he attempts to pay a visit to Natsumi, having jokingly promised to do so while they were dating. Natsumi, however, is nowhere to be found and so Nishino is left to exorcise his demons with the now teenage Minami (Yurika Nakamura) who decides to attend his funeral in case her long absent mother decides to pay her respects. It’s here that she begins to learn a little of Nishino’s sad romantic history courtesy of an older woman who became a friend and confident rather than a lover (and consequently remained in his life a little longer).

The problem is, Nishino’s desire to be eternally helpful means that he’s always pulled in more than one direction. A slow burn affair with shy and retiring superior Manami (Machiko Ono) looks as if it could be the one, but she eventually points out to him that he’s not the sort of man who can have the life he craves because he never fully commits to any one person and never truly loves anyone. His irresistibility apparently even extends to one half of the lesbian couple from next door though, notably, not the half you’d expect.

Nishino first gets to know Tama (Fumino Kimura) and Subaru (Riko Narumi) when their cat, Nau, invites himself over, after which the feline Subaru decides to do the same, flirting away with her uptight girlfriend presumably going crazy in an adjacent room. Subaru is Nishino’s opposing number, the kind of girl that gets everything done for her, but there are obvious cracks in the strained relationship between the two women and it’s the neurotic Tama he finally bonds with after an unusually perceptive conversation over convenience store ice cream. Nishino, as he later puts it, is faithful in mind if not in body but satisfying immediate desires is not always the best idea. Trying to provide comfort, Nishino adds even more confusion to a messy situation and, even if it perhaps works out for the best, Nishino is left alone once again.

A botched proposal leads Nishino to let slip the real reason for his boundless desire to please – it’s because he’s lonely. Desiring to keep these women around him, he gives them whatever it is they want to stay. Just like Tama has effectively relegated Subaru to the same level as their cat – giving in to her every demand in the terror that she will leave, Nishino loses the women he loves by embracing his selfish desire to keep them rather than acting in their best interests and recognising the true depth of love which may not always work out in his favour. The interfering spectre of old girlfriend Kanoko (Tsubasa Honda) who can’t let go even though the relationship is over is a lingering hangover of this tendency as she too cannot seem to commit and wants to keep Nishino as a backup plan, resenting his interest in other women yet not willing to make a permanent decision to stay with him.

A whimsical fable of a man looking for love in all the wrong places, The Tale of Nishino is a long, melancholy journey through modern relationships in which not just romantic but platonic and familial love find themselves under the microscope. As Manami points out, you can’t share loneliness – Nishino’s need to be needed eventually drives a wedge between himself and everything he wanted. Natsumi’s words of wisdom for her injured daughter offer only that romantic love necessarily ends, whereas a mother’s love for her child is ever lasting even if it does not necessarily look that way. Iguchi’s style is typical of the “quirkier” end of Japanese indie, shooting with a deadpan abstraction, but the slight feeling of alienation works well with Nishino’s ultimate refusal to bare his heart in a more “straightforward” manner. A bittersweet story of love lost and found, Nishino may have given up the ghost but perhaps he did find that family after all, in a way, even if it was not his own.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Kazuki Omori, 1996)

night train to the stars posterKenji Miyazawa is one of the giants of modern Japanese literature. Studied in schools and beloved by children everywhere, Night on the Galactic Railroad has become a cultural touchstone but Miyazawa died from pneumonia at 37 years of age long before his work was widely appreciated. Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Waga Kokoro no Ginga Tetsudo: Miyazawa Kenji no Monogatari), commissioned to mark the centenary of Miyazawa’s birth, attempts to tell his story, set as it is against the backdrop of rising militarism.

An aimless if idealistic young man, Miyazawa (Naoto Ogata) is at once fiercely religious and interested in mildly left-wing, agrarian politics. Together with a close friend, Kanai, he dreams of building a village utopia in which a community of farmers works the land enjoying peace and prosperity free of the oppression of landlords. The eldest son of a money lender, Miyazawa does not approve of his father’s profession and attempts to show him up by interfering in his business but only succeeds in showing his own naivety and though he has an especially close relationship with his older sister Toshi (Maki Mizuno), Miyazawa longs for pastures new but never manages to stick at anything for very long. After failing to join a religious sect in Tokyo, he returns home to start an agrarian school which will teach ordinary famers’ sons the joys of the arts.

Miyazawa had seemingly always been a strange, ethereal presence – a drunken guest at his family home mocks the way he used to wander around town robotically banging his toy drum as a child, and it’s clear he doesn’t fit within any of the environments he attempts to carve out for himself save the solitary cabin where he later begins his personal agrarian experiment. As the eldest son of the family it would be expected that Miyazawa take over the family business but there just isn’t any way he could. Second son Seiroku (Ryuji Harada) later adopts the familial responsibilities, even if remaining committed to his brother’s legacy by collating and publishing his work following Miyazawa’s death.

Miyazawa’s strangeness extends to his diet – he’s a strict vegetarian thanks to his attachment to Nichizen Buddhism. Intense religiosity remains a central part of Miyazawa’s life but it’s often one that’s hard to integrate with his other relationships. Not content with leading by example, Miyazawa is continually trying to convert his reluctant friends and family to his own beliefs, refusing to take their polite refusals seriously. Though his father simply ignores Miyazawa’s pleas and accepts them as a part of his strangeness, other friends are not so tolerant. One even eventually decides to sever the friendship entirely, giving the young Miyazawa a painful station platform lecture on the true nature of friendship. Berating him for the fact his letters are essentially all about himself and his religious claptrap, his friend reminds him that true friendship is accepting someone for what they are, implying that he’s not a trophy to be won for the cause of Nichizen Buddhism and has his own beliefs and causes which are just as valid as Miyazawa’s.

Yet even if sometimes misguided, Miyazawa’s intensions are altruistic. His is a love of the world, of dreams, and nature and people too though something in him has never quite felt at home in conventional society. Miyazawa’s writing is more an artistic pursuit than an attempt at a literary occupation – his first published volume sold so badly he felt guilty enough to get himself in debt buying all his own books so that the publishing company wouldn’t be out of pocket after supporting him. The son of wealthy family, Miyazawa could perhaps afford to indulge his eccentric ideas but the same is not true for all as he finds out when visiting the home of a pupil who is considering giving up his studies because of an alcoholic parent. Miyazawa offers to pay his tuition for him, but the boy turns him down, studying is a frivolous affectation that he can no longer afford.

Though he talks of romance, Miyazawa prefers the one of the mind to the one of the heart. A young woman falls in love with his writings and, she thinks, with him though Miyazawa explains that her feelings are too big for him to process – just as one cannot eat all the clouds in the sky, he cannot accept the weight of her emotion. Knowing that his health is failing, Miyazawa chooses a fantasy, idealised love over a physical one he fears he will abandon, cleaving to the beauty of the landscape rather than those who people it.

On his deathbed Miyazawa asks his family to throw his notebooks away – he only kept them to try and figure things out but he feels as if he knows all he needs to know by now. Miyazawa’s constant search, as it was for the characters of Night on the Galactic Railroad, was for “true happiness” – perhaps he found it, perhaps not, but thankfully his work lived on thanks to his brother who later took up his interest in agricultural reforms. A typical prestige picture of the time, Night Train to the Stars is a straightforward biopic but one which also bears out Miyazawa’s dreamlike world view with all of its strangeness and wonder.


 

Midnight Diner 2 (続・深夜食堂, Joji Matsuoka, 2016)

midnight diner 2 posterThe Midnight Diner is open for business once again. Yaro Abe’s eponymous manga was first adapted as a TV drama in 2009 which then ran for three seasons before heading to the big screen and then again to the smaller one with the Netflix original Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories becoming the de facto season four. Midnight Diner 2 (続・深夜食堂, Zoku Shinya Shokudo) returns with more of the same as Master puts out his sign and opens the shop, welcoming the denizens of Tokyo after dark in search of a little place to call home amid all the chaos and alienation.

To re-cap, the Midnight Diner is a casual eating establishment run by Master which opens only between the hours of midnight and 7am. The restaurant has only a small formal menu but Master’s selling point is that he is prepared to make whatever the customer so desires (assuming the ingredients are available). Regulars and newcomers alike are given a warm welcome and a place to feel at home, free of whatever it was that was bothering them in the outside world.

Like the first film, Midnight Diner 2 is really three TV episodes stitched together. The first begins on an ominous note as each of the regulars arrives in mourning clothes only to be struck by the coincidence that they’ve each been to a different person’s funeral. A woman arrives dressed in black but reveals she hasn’t been bereaved, she simply enjoys dressing like this to destress from the difficult atmosphere at her publishing job. Noriko (Aoba Kawai) is a top editor but often finds herself sidelined – this time by a young author whose book she made a success but has now dumped her owing to all her notes on his second effort. Saddled with an elderly client who doesn’t like taking advice from a woman, Noriko’s fortunes fall still further when she finds him dead. A visit to a real funeral threatens to change her life completely.

Strand two follows the son of a nearby soba shop, Seita (Sosuke Ikematsu), who has fallen in love with a much older woman and wants to marry despite his mother’s reservations. The third segment continues along the familial theme with an old woman travelling all the way from Kyushu to Tokyo after falling victim to an “Ore Ore” scam.

Scams and parental bonds become the central themes tying the episodes together as each of the lovelorn protagonists finds themselves taking advantage of Master’s sturdy shoulders. Noriko and Mrs. Ogawa (Misako Watanabe) fall victim to an obvious conman but do so almost willingly out of their desperate loneliness. Noriko, dissatisfied with her working environment, takes to the streets dressed in black but becomes the target of “funeral fetishists” who are only interested in her “bereaved” state. A chance encounter at a real funeral makes her believe her life can change but she is deceived again when a man she came to care for is unmasked as a serial trickster. Mrs. Ogawa faces a similar problem when she races all the way to Tokyo to pay off a “colleague” of her son’s, so desperate to help that she never suspects that she’s fallen victim to a scam.

Mrs. Ogawa’s deep love for the son she has become estranged from is contrasted with that of the soba noodle seller for the son she can’t let go. Seita cares for nothing other than ping pong, much to his mother’s consternation and has little interest in taking over the family business. A young man, he’s tired of the constraints his lonely widowed mother continues to place on him though his determination to marry an older woman at such a young age bears out his relative maturity.

As usual Master has good advice and a kind word for everyone that helps them get where they need to go, softly nudging them in the right direction through the power of comfort food. By now the cast of familiars is well and truly entrenched but there will always be space at Master’s counter for those in need who will be greeted warmly by those already aware of its charms. True enough, Midnight Diner 2 offers little in the way of innovation (though we do get a little more information about the mysterious Master) but no one comes the Midnight Diner looking to try something new. In here, nostalgia rules and we wouldn’t have it any other way.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Genocidal Organ (虐殺器官, Shuko Murase, 2017)

genocidal organHistory books make for the grimmest reading, subjective as they often are. Science fiction can rarely improve upon the already existing evidence of humanity’s dark side, but Genocidal Organ (虐殺器官, Gyakusatsu Kikan) has good go anyway, extrapolating a long line of political manipulations into the near future which neatly straddles a utopian/dystopian divide. Plagued by production delays and studio bankruptcy, Genocidal Organ is the third of three films adapted from the novels of late sci-fi author Project Itoh, arriving nearly two years after previous instalments Harmony and Empire of Corpses. Sadly, its message has only become more timely as the world finds itself on the brink of a geo-political recalibration where fear and division rule the roost.

Set in 2022, the world of Genocidal Organ is one of intense “security”. Following the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Sarajevo in 2017, developed nations have once again become jumpy. As the world weary narrative voice over informs us, Americans have sacrificed their freedoms for an illusion of safety which decreases the burden of living under the threat of terrorism. This brave new world is a surveillance state where citizens are chipped and monitored, even the simple act of buying pizza requires an identity check.

Less developed nations, however, have descended into a hellish cycle of internecine wars and large scale atrocities. American special forces have identified a pattern which puts one of their own, mysterious linguistics professor John Paul (Takahiro Sakurai), at the centre of a vast conspiracy. Army Intelligence officer Clavis Shepherd (Yuichi Nakamura) is despatched to track the master criminal down through his sometime girlfriend Lucia (Sanae Kobayashi), a Czech national and former MIT linguistics researcher now teaching Czech to foreigners in Prague.

Clavis, like the best film noir heroes, finds himself falling down a rabbit hole into an increasingly uncertain world. A top soldier, he has been “engineered” to decrease emotionality and limit pain response to make him a “better” soldier. His world is first shaken when one of his comrades goes rogue, kills a valuable mark, and then turns a gun on him. The top brass blame PTSD but not only that, PTSD that was in fact induced by the very processes the soldiers undergo to ensure than PTSD is impossible. He has always believed that his actions, and those of his superiors have been for the greater good, but he has rarely stopped to think what that greater good may be.

Clavis’ missions see him jumping into a coffin-like landing pod and parachuting into street battles in which many of the combatants are children who have been drugged “to make them better soldiers”. Just as you’re starting to wonder who exactly is perpetrating the genocide, Clavis is asked the relevant question by a captive John. He replies that it’s just his job. John reminds Clavis that that particular justification has a long and terrifying history and so perhaps he ought to ask himself why he chooses to do this particular job and do it so blindly.

John’s big theory is that violence has its own grammar, a secret code buried in language which can be engineered to provoke political instability but then conveniently contained within its own language group. Essentially, he posits the idea of sicking the “terrorists” onto each other and letting them fight it out amongst themselves in those far off places which no one really cares about. The citizens of the developed world might frown at their morning papers, but they’ll soon file it under “terrible things happening far away” and go back to enjoying their lives of peace and security. John’s plan, he claims, is the opposite of vengeance, a means of keeping his side safe by ensuring that the terrible things stay far away, contained.

The “genocidal organ” is the heart hardened towards the suffering of others. John has some grand theories about this, about the survival instinct, fear, suspicion and desperation, but he also has a few on the trade offs between freedom and security. Itoh’s vision is bleak, and the prognosis bleaker but its logic cannot be denied, even if its execution is occasionally imperfect.


Currently on limited theatrical release throughout the UK courtesy of All the Anime.

Original trailer (English 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)