A 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)