Tajomaru -- Film Review

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HONG KONG -- When a group of producers get together and decide it would be a good idea to tell the backstory we never saw from a classic, a viewing of "Tajomaru" might guide them into making the right decision -- that being, don't do it. Basically the story of the nobles that run into the highway bandit in "Rashomon," "Tajomaru" suffers from every imaginable ill and is loaded with every imaginable cliche the samurai genre has to offer.

Kurosawa focused his camera on the bandit for a reason: no one else in Akutagawa Ryunosuke's original story is worth the trouble. Not every supporting player has the potential that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did.

"Tajomaru" looks, plays, and feels like a television film and that's probably where it will see the most success. Fans of the genre may make it a modest hit on DVD and genre festivals may sit up and pay attention, particularly in light of who the director is: Nakano Hiroyuki showed a flair for clever genre reconstruction in "Stereo Future" and "Samurai Fiction." But beyond that theatrical release outside Asia (if that) seems unlikely.

The setting is feudal Japan and the sons of the House of Hatakeyama, Naomitsu (Oguri Shun) and Nobutsuna (Ikeuchi Hiroyuki), become embroiled in a complex domestic conspiracy wherein adopted brother Sakuramura (Tanaka Kei) plots to get the family gold and take over ruling the province. He's won the confidence of the Shogun, and both brothers are clueless enough to think the former thief is trustworthy. Not surprisingly, Sakuramura double-crosses everyone and Naomitsu runs away with his beloved Ako (Shibamoto Yuki). A roadside fight with Tajomaru -- the bandit -- turns him into a bandit king and Ako against him. Or does it? If you want twists and turns, eventually you get them.

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"Tajomaru" is a clinic in cliche, and if Nakano was gunning for satire or parody (there are few other reasons to include anachronistic pop music) he missed the mark. Though it's well produced -- the production values are typically high, costumes are great, photography is sharp, there's some decent swordplay -- none of the lead actors rises above competent into compelling.

Oguri tries hard, and fails, to channel Japanese TV star Kimura Takuya, Tanaka distills the villainous Sakuramura down to a diabolical laugh, and Ikeuchi simply pouts like a petulant child when his inheritance is threatened. After the founding nefariousness unfolds, Tajomaru/Naomitsu's moods are cued by how tightly his woodland dreadlocks are wound. Shibamoto's Ako has very little to do other than look pretty and be "defiled." "Tajomaru" is for samurai faithful only and anyone looking for a meditation on truth, perspective, and human nature had best look to this film's inspiration.

Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival/Filmart
Sales: Bogeydom Licensing
Production company: Cinema Investment, Fuji Television Network, Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, Kodansha, Tristone Entertainment Inc., Warner Bros.
Cast: Oguri Shun, Tanaka Kei, Shibamoto Yuki, Matsukata Hiroki, Ikeuchi Hiroyuki.
Director: Nakano Hiroyuki
Screenwriter: Ichikawa Shinichi and Mizushima Rikiya, based on the story by Akutagawa Ryunosuke
Producer: Yamamoto Mataichirio, Satani Hidemi
Director of Photography: Furuya Takumi
Production Designer: Hayashida Yuji
Music: Otsubo Naoki
Editor: Kakesu Shuichi
No rating, 128 minutes
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