Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Lou Ye, 2003)

Purple Butterfly posterChinese films about the resistance movement towards the Japanese occupation tend to veer towards the hagiographic. The business of resistance may be complex, may require unfortunate moral compromises, and may in fact prove ruinous but it is always righteous. Lou Ye’s Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Zǐ Húdié) wants to tell a different, sadder story. Set between 1928 and 1937, Purple Butterfly pits love and oppression against each other and asks whether feeling is a worthy causality of war or if compassion is merely a weakness which must be eradicated in the quest for political freedom.

In Manchuria in 1928, Ding Hui (Zhang Ziyi) is having an affair with a Japanese man raised in China who is also a childhood friend. Itami (Toru Nakamura) is being called back to Japan and has asked Ding Hui to go with him. As if trapped within a melancholy film noir, she goes to the station but does not board the train. When she comes home, she witnesses her brother, the editor of an underground resistance newspaper, being assassinated by a Japanese nationalist. Ding Hui joins the cause.

Flashforward to 1931 and Ding Hui makes her second trip to the station as part of an operation to pass important papers to an operative. However, the operation goes as wrong as it could possibly go. Szeto (Liu Ye) – an ordinary passenger, picks up the assassin’s jacket by mistake and is passed the briefcase. When he tries to give it back, the operative panics and starts shooting, assuming they have been betrayed. Many innocent people are killed, including Szeto’s fiancée Yiling (Li Bingbing) who had made the perilous journey to the station to meet him despite the ongoing unrest gripping the city.

Train stations become a point of transition, of loss and compromise in more ways than one and especially for Ding Hui who feels herself fracturing, anxious to the point of breakdown and wondering what exactly it is they’re fighting for. As coincidence would have it, also on the train is Itami – returned from Japan and now an intelligence officer tasked with rooting out the “Purple Butterfly” resistance cell of which Ding Hui is a prominent member. It is decided that Ding Hui must rekindle her romance with Itami in order to have an eye in the intelligence department and engineer access to assassinating the top officer, Yamamoto (Kin Ei).

Lou deliberately fragments his narrative, allowing the shockwaves from the central train station sequence to radiate outward as the three protagonists dance around each other willingly or otherwise. Dance is, indeed, the primary metaphor as he digresses from the central narrative to give us Szeto’s backstory in his dreamy, innocent romance with Yiling which is destined to end in tragedy. The pair dance to Shanghai jazz, giddy, as if the world itself has receded from them and they exist only within this present and this space. Later Szeto puts the same record on again as he contemplates suicide, longing to be back inside that moment. As we had two train stations we also have two dances but our second is danced to a Japanese tune as Ding Hui and Itami attend a party, each sorrowful, each dreading what must come next but also perhaps mildly hopeful that it will finally be over and perhaps they can both catch that train out of Shanghai after all.

War defeats them all. Szeto’s life is ruined, as are the lives of many, by resistance panic at a busy train station. His pain and his rage and the impotence of his times threaten to push him over the edge, consumed by hatred for both sides who have each taken from him the only things which ever mattered. Ding Hui sacrificed her love for patriotism, Itami sacrificed patriotism for love, they win and lose in equal measure cementing only the inevitable sense of impossibility which continues to define Shanghai in the 1930s. Lou paints their destinies like film noir, fatalistic and romantic yet human and painful. Feeling is powerless in the face of historical circumstance, or so Lou seems to say as he closes out with a selection of stock footage depicting the fall of Shanghai and the Nanjing Massacre. What are we fighting for? Ding Hui asks, but it’s a question with no answer when all around is chaos.


Purple Butterfly is available to stream on Mubi UK until 3rd September 2018.

 Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Have a Nice Day (大世界 / 好极了, Liu Jian, 2017)

Have a Nice Day poster 1Even when everything is pointless, still you have to try to live. “Spring is spring”, as the opening quote by Leo Tolstoy proclaims and so there is life even among the ruins which, in this case, exist in the mysterious “development zone” somewhere in the modern China. This backstreet noir takes place in a world of near apocalyptic dilapidation though the effect is more one of incompleteness than destruction, as if an over excited city planner had randomly started projects one after another but suddenly tired of each of them. Jack Ma may have affirmed that everyone has a dream in his heart, but the dreams here are small and mostly unattainable, locked into a claustrophobic atmosphere of inescapable despair.

Xiao Zhang (Zhu Changlong), a lowly construction driver, decides to seize his chance of happiness with both hands in lifting a vast sum of cash which belongs to mob boss Uncle Liu (Yang Siming). Uncle Liu, however, is busy torturing his childhood friend for supposedly sleeping with his wife. He sends his best guy, enigmatic hitman Skinny (Ma Xiaofeng), after Zhang but before Skinny can get to him, Xiao Zhang is is picked up by “inventor” Yellow Eyes (Cao Kou) whose X-ray specs have spotted the money and decided it’s too good an opportunity to miss. He takes off with his kind-of-girlfriend (Zheng Yi) who is also the sister-in-law of a guy who works with petty gangster Lao Zhao (Cao Kai) who is the guy Xiao Zhang took the money from in the first place. Meanwhile, the mother of Xiao Zhang’s girlfriend has asked her niece, Ann Ann (Zhu Hong), to have a look into what’s going on with Xiao Zhang because he’s been sending some very suspicious messages.

Everything here is in transit. Hitman Skinny is fond of telling people that he’s “just passing through” but so is everyone else, there is nothing here to stop for, except that it’s impossible to escape. All the significant places are also points of transit or hope for connection – the “Integrity” internet cafe, a “business” hotel, a road which leads nowhere through a landscape permanently “under construction”. Everything is half formed or falling down, the world is indistinct as if it hasn’t discovered its own identity and has tried to cobble something together from the back streets of other cities glanced in violent movies from somewhere far away.

Xiao Zhang, (almost) our hero, is almost the same – he tells Skinny that his dream was to be a man like him rather than the spineless coward he feels himself to be because guys like him always seem so cool in the movies. Doubtless Skinny doesn’t seem so “cool” with his foot on Xiao Zhang’s chest, but Xiao Zhang’s need is as much about escape as it is a matter of practicality. Though the practicality is ironic enough – he wants the money to pay for more plastic surgery for his fiancée whose face has apparently been ruined by a botched operation. Xiao Zhang hopes they can escape to South Korea, world capital of cosmetic procedures, where they can repair what the modern China has destroyed.

It isn’t difficult to see why Have a Nice Day (大世界, Dàshìjiè, previously titled 好极了, Hǎojíle) rubbed the censors the wrong way. Liu’s vision of the China of today is a lawless wasteland in which despair and inertia reign while those of the post ‘80s generation flail wildly in the wind, drinking in overseas culture from Hong Kong and the West and wanting more than their society can give them. In a running joke everyone has a startup idea they’re sure will be the next big thing but when it comes right down to it, even with the money they’ve no idea what they’re doing. Two boys chatting idly about the future find only futility with one lamenting that if he wanted to make it he’d have gone to England to study, only for the other to ask what the point would be now the UK has left Europe. He has a radical startup idea of his own – a restaurant! After all, people will always need to eat. You have to admire his practicality, even if bemoaning his lack of imagination.

Meanwhile, the cousin of Xiao Zhang’s fiancée and her boyfriend, having figured out that Xiao Zhang really does have the money and intending to take it from him, fantasise about finding their own “Shangri-La”. Breaking into a lengthy karaoke-style video sequence, Liu paints a jagged picture of Ann Ann’s visual ideology which quickly descends into a mish-mash of Mao-era socialist propaganda posters and their collections of cheerful country women enthusiastically driving tractors and juggling sheep while posing in traditional Chinese dress with children in neckerchiefs reading improving literature. Everything is for sale, even apparently the innocence of the past. A friend of Lao Zhao’s expounding on the nature of freedom describes it as a three tiered system – the farmer’s market, supermarket, and online, your degree of personal autonomy and happiness reduced to a question of how the place you buy your groceries informs your sense of self worth.

Rampant capitalism has led to moral as well as physical decay as the half-finished buildings collapse under the weight of national hubris, a weathered statue standing in for a real life policeman as the hollow representation of the authority of an absent regime. Animated with an oddly naturalistic minimalism and filled with whimsical absurdity, Have a Nice Day serves as a condemnation of the last 30 years of Chinese history but it does so with a wistful irony. After all, it’s not as if things are much better anywhere else.


Have a Nice Day is released in UK Cinemas on 23rd March courtesy of Mubi. Check the official website to find out where it’s screening near you.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Postcards from the Zoo (Kebun Binatang, Edwin, 2012)

postcards from the zoo posterThe thing about zoos is, how can you be sure which side of the bars you’re really on? The heroine of Edwin’s whimsical adventure, Postcards From the Zoo (Kebun Binatang), finds herself at home among the animals after being abandoned by her human father with the consequence that, to her, the outside world is the inverted mirror of her theme park home. Themes of exploitation, exoticisation, innocence and experience run side by side but then perhaps Edwin has tried to pack too much into his day out lending a degree of incoherence to his meandering itinerary.

As a young child, Lana (Ladya Cheryl) is abandoned in the zoo by her father. All alone, trapped in the park overnight, she wanders around exploring and calling out for her dad to come and get her. He doesn’t, years pass and suddenly Lana is a beautiful young woman, still living in the zoo after having been taken in by a giraffe handler, Oom Dave. Her life changes when a new authority takes over and immediately sets about trying to evict the collection of people who’ve made the zoo their home without the proper permission. Taking off with a handsome magician (Nicholas Saputra), Lana begins to explore the world outside but quickly finds that there are invisible bars everywhere.

Edwin ties Lana to the figure of the zoo’s solitary giraffe – a herd animal forced to live alone in Jakarta’s zoo as the sole representative of its kind. Certifiably nuts about giraffes, Lana rolls off various animal facts and expresses the long held desire the touch the giraffe’s stomach. Her status is confused; she’s both visitor and exhibit, caretaker and resident. The zoo is all Lana has ever known or wanted to know, and so when she must leave it, she does so with curious eyes, examining the regular world like a traveller on a journey to untold lands.

Becoming the magician’s assistant – a Tiger Lily to his cowboy, Lana travels the city as a co-conspirator in his life of hustling. Their odyssey brings them into the seedy underbelly of the modern capital with its heartless gangsters and oppressed women. Once again abandoned, Lana finds herself sinking into this world as one of many generic young women dressed in white, given a number (33), and placed behind glass waiting to be called forth by male visitors. Now literally an exhibit in a human zoo, Lana finds that things on this side of the enclosure are no different. While her customer asks her to dress up in a “tiger” suit (it’s a leopard, she quickly corrects him), a family with young children pose with a “tamed” python at the zoo. The twin pictures of exploitation neatly ram Edwin’s point home even if he allows Lana’s experiences to remain in the realms of whimsy, only hinting at the darkness of the “massage” industry in an early humiliating scene in which a naked, frightened woman is awkwardly sat with a grinning gangster as a kind of living trophy.

Broken with a series of title cards explaining zoo-related terminology each of which relate to the latest stages of Lana’s journey – “ex-situ conservation”, “reintroduction”, etc, Postcards from the Zoo maintains a kind of distanced affectation which undermines the whimsy of its magical realist stance. Lana’s journey is one of youthful exploration in which the adolescent must venture away from home in order to become adult and return home with wiser eyes but Lana’s quest, with her series of abandonments and mysteries, may perhaps never be finished. Edwin finds the whimsy of the zoo with its dinosaur shaped carts and strangely designed cowbus mimicked in the outside world with monkeys wearing doll masks and wandering magicians selling snake oil claiming to provide “instant youth” and cure roundworm, fungus, and stab wounds,  returning him to the “all the world’s a zoo” ethos which seems to pervade but even if he fails to bring his tale full circle he does at least allow a kind of harmony in the reunion of his twin symbols of the solitary, imprisoned giraffe and the curious little girl.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Antiporno (アンチポルノ, Sion Sono, 2016)

Antiporno posterIf freedom exists in Japanese cinema, it exists only through sexual liberation. Only in this most private of acts can true individual will be expressed. Sion Sono, ever the contrarian, wants to ask if that very idea of “freedom” is in itself oppressive and he’s chosen to do that through his contribution to the Roman Porno Reboot Project in which five contemporary directors attempt to recreate Nikkatsu’s line in ‘70s soft-core pornography.

Opening in a room of bold primary colours – the sunlit walls of the yellow bedchamber and the garish red of the doorless bathroom, Sono homes in on the figure of Kyoko (Ami Tomite) who lies face down on a bed with her underwear around her ankles. She seems somehow broken and exhausted, staring into a piece of glass from a shattered mirror and making ominous statements to herself. Suddenly her mood changes, no longer the maudlin woman she transforms into the cute and quirky high schooler so beloved of certain genres of Japanese entertainment. When her assistant arrives, Kyoko delights in humiliating her, forcing Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui) to crawl around on all fours wearing a dog collar and then ordering her to allow herself to be raped by an (all female) team of newspaper reporters.

So far, so Petra von Kant, but Sono doesn’t stop here. He shows us that this brightly coloured room is a stand-in for Kyoko’s fracturing psyche, a failed attempt to order her chaotic world. Someone shouts “cut” and we’re on a film set – roles are reversed, Kyoko is no longer in control. Her memories enter free fall as she flits between an awkward (possibly imagined) childhood, and her present predicament as, alternately, plaything and dominatrix.

The roots of Kyoko’s confusion stem back to the contradiction in her parents’, or really her society’s, attitude to sex. During a very strange family dinner, Kyoko and her younger sister have a frank discussion with mum and dad about male and female genitals and how they fit together. The language is pointed, but Kyoko’s father has very clear ideas about what is obscene and what isn’t – “Cocks” are what men stick into prostitutes and they’re obscene, but he has no sensible answer when pressed on how exactly “cocks” and “male genitalia” can be all that different. Her parents tell her sex is indecent and shameful while continuing to talk about their own sex life openly and refusing to shield their daughters from their obvious appetites. They offer no answer for this continuing paradox, only the affirmation that Kyoko’s desires are “indecent” and must be rejected.

Kyoko’s sister finds her freedom in another way, but Kyoko pursues hers through sexuality, looking for a connection in midst of true liberation. She wants to become a “whore” which the adult version of herself describes as “a woman so pure it breaks her own heart”, but what she’s looking for is the freedom which eludes her in her day to day living. Kyoko and later Noriko repeat the mantra that they will dismantle the “annoying freedoms which restrict me”,  lamenting that there is no freedom of speech in a country like Japan and that no woman has ever been able to attain their own freedom in a world entirely controlled by men. A protest against the renewal of the ANPO security treaty runs on the TV while Kyoko’s sister holds up a book of butterflies, exclaiming that all the free things fly away. The women of Japan, according to Noriko, praise free speech but reject their own freedom, forced to chase false liberations and endlessly allowing themselves to be manipulated by a culture they themselves willingly create.

The fly away butterflies hit the ceiling, and Kyoko’s captive lizard cannot escape its bottle. Sono seems to suggest that there is no true freedom, that the very idea of “true freedom” as mediated through the idea of sexual liberation is itself another fallacy used to manipulate women into doing what men want. Kyoko ends up in a “Roman Porno” to empower herself, but is disempowered by it – rendered an anonymous object trapped inside an entirely different kind of tube. Blinded by colours and memory she searches for an escape but finds none, groping for the mechanism to set herself free from the delusion of liberation but grasping only empty air.


Antiporno is available to stream in the UK via Mubi until 8th January and will be released on blu-ray by Third Window Films in April 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

White Ant (白蟻─慾望謎網, Chu Hsien-che, 2016)

白蟻_poster_D_0105_final_更新tenga_cs5White Ant (白蟻─慾望謎網, Báiyǐ – Yùwàng Mí Wǎng) – another name for termite, is an apt title for this first indie narrative feature from veteran Taiwanese documentarian, Chu Hsien-che. Voyeurism, sexual fetish, social conservatism, stigma, embarrassment, and longstanding mental illness conspire towards tragedy as one young man becomes the target for a betrayed woman’s scorn, an innocent bystander in her quest for revenge as a salve for her own repressed emotional pain and loneliness. Chu certainly finds plenty of that as guilt and shame continue to eat away at our protagonists, burrowing ever deeper like the termite of the title, undermining already fragile foundations in each of these differently damaged people.

Bai Yide (Chris Wu Kan-jen) is a quiet, aloof young man who works in a bookstore. On his way home one day, he stops to swipe a set of ladies’ underwear hanging out to dry in the courtyard where he lives. Bai puts on the underwear and then removes it to masturbate in front of his mirror, reduced to angry, desperate tears in the shame of his compulsion.

Unbeknownst to Bai, his illicit activities have not gone unnoticed. Two bored students, Tang Junhong (Aviis Zhong) and her minion Lu Peiyi, saw Bai steal the pants and bra and filmed him doing it. On the rebound for a bad breakup and looking for some random payback, Junhong mails Bai a copy of the DVD exposing his sordid needs. Junhong is, apparently, offended by Bai’s “depravity” though her true motivations remain unclear even to herself. Despite the urgings of Peiyi and Peiyi’s boyfriend who partially assists through his social media accounts, Junhong continues to taunt Bai who soon descends into a cycle of paranoia and depression which eventually has tragic consequences of the kind Junhong had not intended or imagined.

Besides the act of theft, which has admittedly deprived someone of a set of underwear, Bai’s unusual fetishes serve to harm no one though they appear to cause him a degree of mental stress in feeling himself to be in someway transgressive and required to keep his tastes firmly under wraps. The act of theft may be an attraction in and of itself, though if Bai desired pristine, unworn underwear he would likely find it difficult to acquire for the same reasons that lead him to feel ashamed just for wanting it. Junhong has no real right to feel as outraged as she does – it’s not as if Bai stole her pants or harmed her in any way. He is simply an innocent bystander who happened to step into a space approximating that of Junhong’s ex on whom she vowed revenge.

As we later find out from Bai’s melancholy mother, Lan (Yu Tai-yan), Bai had been experiencing a degree of mental distress since childhood. Following the death of his father and subsequently witnessing his mother with another man, Bai has suffered with a compulsion to steal ladies’ underwear beginning with Lan’s. Lan blames herself for this – in having been both too clingy in allowing him to sleep in the same bed long past the age most children lock themselves away in their own rooms, and in having been too self-centred in taking a lover which, she feels, led to a neglect of her son’s interests. Bai, suffering apparent paranoia and depression even in childhood, believing that there is a voice in his hair which torments him, is further unbalanced by Junhong’s campaign of terror. Trying to track down the blackmailer and figure out what is they want out of all of this, he becomes suspicious of everyone, permanently on edge, terrified, and angry lest his sordid secret be revealed.

Driven half mad by her own frenzy of vengeance, Junhong’s actions places a wedge between herself and her best friend Pieyi who thinks things have gone far enough. Friendships ruined, Junhong ends up just as lonely and isolated as Bai before eventually emerging scarred and guilty, unwilling to process the unintended consequences of what she saw as an amusing series of practical jokes probably designed to make her feel powerful when she felt anything but. Junhong attempts to atone by connecting with Bai’s sorrowful mother, Lan, who doesn’t know her true identity, but in any case continues to blame herself for her son’s death. Lan, a tragic figure, is also isolated by her feelings of guilt and self loathing both in claiming responsibility for Bai’s mental instability and for the loss of her husband which kickstarted the pair’s eventual downfall.

Strangely enough the two women bond through their shared guilt and grief, finding common ground even after the truth is revealed. Despite this final plea for empathy and connection, Chu’s premise seems to rest on an association of unusual sexual proclivities with mental illness. Bai’s suffering is never condemned, indeed the film seems to believe he should suffer for his “perversions” rather than criticising the society which has relentlessly excluded him, viewing his instability as further evidence of his otherness rather than a symptom of the isolation he is forced to feel through continued rejections. Nevertheless, Chu does seem to be clear that it is these repressed emotions that eventually become white ants, burrowing deeply inside the sufferer until they threaten to destroy the foundations of humanity, though whether the damage can ever be fully repaired appears to be far less clear.


Seen on Mubi.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Chu Hsien-che from Busan 2016

Wet Woman in the Wind (風に濡れた女, Akihiko Shiota, 2016)

wet woman in the wind poster largeBack in the early ‘70s, Nikkatsu reacted to the gradual box office decline of Japanese cinema by taking things one step further than their already edgy youth output in rebranding themselves as a purveyor of softcore pornography known as Roman Porno. Unlike the familiar “pink film”, Roman Porno was made with the assets of a major studio behind it including better actors, production values, and distribution power but it still obeyed strict genre rules calling for speedy turnarounds, minimal running times and the requisite amount of nudity (to the permitted parameters) at set intervals. 45 years later Roman Porno is back in a series of films directed by some of today’s most interesting directors who attempt to recreate the genre anew for modern audiences whilst paying homage to the originals.

Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind (風に濡れた女, Kaze ni Nureta Onna) starts as it means to go on with hapless protagonist Kosuke (Tasuku Nagaoka) sitting by a river looking sad just as a strange young woman suddenly rides her bicycle directly into the nearby lake before climbing out and stripping off her T-shirt (which, amusingly enough reads “you need tissues for your issues”), revealing her bare breasts to a complete stranger. Kosuke is baffled and confused. He tries to leave but the woman follows him, asking if she can stay with him tonight because she has nowhere else to go. Kosuke is resolved, he’s given up girls and wants nothing whatsoever to do with weird women from ponds but Shiori (Yuki Mamiya) is not one to take no for an answer.

It’s never made clear but something unpleasant has obviously happened to Kosuke that has made him retreat from the city with his tail between his legs (so to speak). A respected playwright, Kosuke seems to have had something of an existential crisis and has decided to condemn himself to a life of self-imposed isolation because “you have to be alone if you really want to think deeply about things”. His isolation is, however, only up to a point. Kosuke’s semi-primitive lifestyle sees him living in a shack in the woods but he has electric lighting provided by generator batteries and grinds his own coffee beans by hand after buying them from a local cafe owned by a man Kosuke went to university with but claims not to have known at the time. The cafe owner’s wife has recently left and he blames Kosuke for reawakening a desire in her that had apparently lain dormant with her husband.

In a shocking coincidence, Shiori has also taken a job at the cafe and has set about seducing the recently lonely owner who has now become fixated and jealous, once again afraid Kosuke in particular is going to steal away his new plaything just like he stole his wife. This is a fallacy on several levels, not least that Shiori is not a woman to be constrained by any man but a true free spirit who gives her love freely to whomever that she chooses.

Spirit might be the best way to describe Shiori who arrives and departs with the wind, a force of nature with the sole intent of freeing her targets of the burden of repressed desires. A radio broadcast later reveals that a tiger has been on the run from the nearby zoo and if this were a fable, you could almost believe the tiger to be Shiori, sinking her teeth into soft centre of human weakness and leaving right after she tears its throat out.

Free spirit as she is, Shiori does find herself in moments of danger as the the threat of sexual violence rears its ugly head. Kosuke likes to think of himself as an enlightened kind of man, an intellectual, but he’s also a self-involved womaniser not above attempting to force himself on a woman he feels to be his for the taking or, half in jest, threatening to rape a former lover. Yet for Shiori much of this is sport – she sees through Kosuke and neatly undercuts all of his self delusions and neuroses, but she’s also merely toying with him.

Finding himself literally kicked out of bed and rendered redundant when Shiori finds more pleasure in getting together with his former lover Kyoko, Kosuke wanders outside in confusion and seduces, with a degree of tenderness, Kyoko’s shy, bespectacled assistant, Yuko. When the morning comes, however, he feels he made a mistake. Yuko has become attached to him, sharing a traumatic childhood story only for Kosuke to brush it aside and encourage her to go out into the world to explore the rich pleasures on offer now that he has “awakened” her. Kosuke remains as self-centred as ever, but Yuko at least does perhaps find something in his words of “wisdom”.

As in all good sex comedy, the men are pathetic slaves to desires they find themselves unable to express, whether out of fear or cultural ideals of masculinity, while the women remain in control and must guide the men either towards a healthier outlook or their own destruction. Both Kosuke and the cafe owner conspire in their own downfall in misguided battles for possession or conquest. Having already suffered defeat, Kosuke has retreated from the field dejected and humiliated, but in his all out impassioned attempt to re-enter the world of carnality he literally brings his entire universe crashing down around his ears. Forced to realise his own ridiculousness, Kosuke is left alone with little else to do than survey the scale of the destruction his various delusions have wrought. A fun loving pastiche, Wet Woman in the Wind is an oddly whimsical tale, witty yet insightful even its seeming lightness.


Currently available to stream via Mubi.

Original trailer (English subtitles) NSFW!

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)