Abacus and Sword -- Film Review

An alternative samurai film calculated to resonate in times of economic recession

TOKYO – A samurai film without a single sword fight doesn’t sound promising as entertainment, but "Abacus and Sword" was rumored to be high on the agenda for buyers from Hong Kong, one of Japanese cinema’s biggest markets, at this year’s TIFF-com market. In Asia, where accountants are often considered hotter dates than rock stars, many will find Yoshimitsu Morishita’s portrait of a book-keeping samurai who is lousy at kendo but brilliant at computation and penny-pinching is funny and endearing.

The family drama set during the tail end of Shogun rule is a reappraisal of bushido in the perspective of Yoji Yamada’s TwilightSamurai trilogy in its humane portrayal of low-ranking, low-income samurai struggling to survive when the philosophy and raison d’etreof their entire class is being questioned and phased out.

The anecdotal chronicles of how the thrifty hero saved both his household and his lord’s estate from bankruptcy is an antidote to consumer culture. Its “waste not, want not” wisdom will hit audiences’ soft spot in the present economic downturn, and reflects Morishita’s ongoing attack on capitalist values that warp family relations, from his most famous film Family Game to his more recent South Bound and It’s On Me.

Naoyuki (Masato Sakai) is the eighth generation descendent of the Inoyama family, samurais who for generations served as bookkeepers for the Kaga Clan of Kanazawa. His mathematical aptitude and fanatical attention to detail earned him the nickname “Mad Abacus” among his peers. In modern times, he would just be called a nerd.

His nerdiness is sometimes amusing, like neglecting his wife to write up expense sheets on their wedding day; other times it’s serious, like refusing to overlook his superiors’ embezzlement. When he realizes that his spendthrift parents have amassed exorbitant debts, he embarks on an austere saving plan with support from his pragmatic wife Koma (Yukie Nakama).

In a delightful episode, Naoyuki serves watercolor drawings of a sea bream at his four-year-old son’s coming-of-age ceremony as a substitute for the requisite dish. A fluid shot of the extended family gliding down the corridor with the watercolors makes them look like they’re swimming with the fish. The image of their infectious joy despite their embarrassing circumstances is one of many instances when the Inoyamas’ improvisations to make their money go a long way actually makes the audience feel that being thrifty can be a creative and fulfilling activity.

The film’s novelty lies in the detailed recreation of the lifestyles, customs and values of lesser-known class of samurai, with a sense of authenticity derived from being reconstructed from household accounts, letters and diaries of the Inoyama family, and narrated by Naoyuki’s son Nariyuki. Yet, the audience can identify with their mindset as they are like civil servants or back office clerks. His single-minded pursuit of fiscal transparency serves as an ironic comment on Japan’s ongoing sagas of financial scandals on corporate and governmental levels.

The narrative only shows signs of weakness towards the end. The way in which the Meiji Restoration is recounted is too brief and confusing for non-Japanese. Though crucial to the final outcome of the film, which sides Naoyuki and his grown-up son are supporting in the maelstrom of divided clan loyalties are not stated clearly enough.

Sakai, who excels at playing characters with a weird streak (Golden Slumber, Chef of South Polar, Captain Kuhio) is appropriately cast as geeky Naoyuki. Despite the screenplay’s potential for sliding into the style of TV domestic drama, he doesn’t overdo his eccentricities.

Matsusaka, who was an eminent actress in the 70s, plays her mother-in-law with a subtle mix of vanity and dignified pride, especially when she’s forced to sell her prized kimonos – a scene which has as much farce and pathos as Imelda Marcos parting with her shoes.

Opened: Dec. 4 in Japan
Sales: Shochiku Co. Ltd.
Production: Abacus and Sword Film Partners
Cast: Masato Sakai, Yukie Nakama, Keiko Matsuzaka, Masatoshi Nakamura
Director: Yoshimitsu Morita
Screenwriter: Michio Kashiwada
Based on the novel by Michifumi Isoda
Producer: Masyuki Motomochi
Executive producers: Hidekazu Tobita, Masao Teshima, Suketsugu Noda, Masato Hara
Director of photography: Yukihiro Okimura
Production designer: Shigeyuki Kondo
Music: Michiru Oshima
Editor: Akimasa Kawashima
No rating, 129 minutes