Set during the early-18th century, when a plague of “red pox” is the scourge of the land, The Lady Shogun and Her Men is a soapy, typically polished would-be epic that would make a better NHK period miniseries than a feature film.
Director Kaneko Fuminori is a television veteran, and it shows in the meticulous pacing (insert commercial break here) and run-of-the-mill visuals that aren’t normally associated with samurai pics. On top of that, there’s hardly any lady shogun, and too many of the men look as if they stepped from a bad Kids in the Hall sketch.
The film could find an audience at home in Japan, where fans of the hugely popular manga could be curious enough to buy tickets. After that, even limited release seems a long shot, as Lady Shogun lacks the gravitas of Yamada Yoji’s recent samurai films and, more crucially, the feminist smarts of Yoshinaga Fumi’s source material to make it either a festival or art house hit anywhere. Again, this will play best on television.
After the plague has nearly decimated the country of its male population, 19-year-old Mizuno Yunoshin (Ninomiya Kazunari, Letters from Iwo Jima) is a budding warrior from a fading samurai family who also hires himself out as a stud for the neighborhood women who want children. He decides to leave behind the love of his life, O-Nobu, and enter the service of the O-Oku — the shogun’s entourage — to support his family. Naturally, he’s subjected to all manner of sexual frat-boy hazing before making it clear he will never be a man who sleeps with men. It seems the O-Oku is laden with homosexual activity, which is portrayed as either sordid or opportunistic.
When the shogun, Yoshimune (Shibasaki Kou), finally shows up (an hour into the film), it looks as though wholesale political and administrative changes are imminent.
They aren’t. Where the original manga dealt in gender politics within the grand scheme, Lady Shogun jettisons the majority of the themes and plot details (or tosses them in ever so briefly) leaving a messy film of mixed, often ugly, messages: gay is equated with perversion and/or opportunism, the “best” gay O-Oku men are attractive and excellent at socializing, and women are still manipulative — even when the numbers are against them.
There is little context created for the story and, within that void, the characters come off as tired stereotypes. Yoshinaga’s dense, highly charged text has been reduced to a trifle that says very little when it’s not gently offending, but in avoiding total ineptitude, will get away with simply being a let-down.
Section: Tokyo International Film Festival, TIFFCOM
Sales: Shochiku Co. Ltd.
Production: Asmik Ace, J. Storm.
Producer: Araki Miyako, Isoyama Aki.
Director: Kaneko Fuminori.
Screenwriter: Takahashi Natsuko, based on the manga by Yoshinaga Fumi.
Executive producer: Hamana Kazuya, Teshima Masao.
Director of Photography: Kikumura Tokusho.
Production Designer: Hanatani Hidefumi.
Music: Muramatsu Takatsugu.
Costume designer: Ogawa Kumiko.
Editor: Matsuo Shigeki.
Cast: Ninomiya Kazunari, Shibasaki Kou, Abe Sadao, Tamaki Hiroshi, Sasaki Kuranosuke, Horikita Maki, Okura Takayoshi, Nakamura Aoi, Baisho Mitsuko.
No rating, 116 minutes