Scabbard Samurai: Film Review

Screwball comedy-weepie is a disappointing stumble for one of Japan's most original film-makers.

Hitoshi Matsumoto, the Japanese writer/director responsible for 2009's hilarious Symbol, follows up with a hybrid of crazy comedy and father-daughter sentimentality.

LOCARNO — Lovely work from irresistibly cute child-actor Sea Kumada isn't enough to save Scabbard Samurai, a baffling misfire from Hitoshi Matsumoto, the writer/director responsible for 2009's hilarious, brilliant and unclassifiable Symbol. Starring middle-aged newcomer Takaaki Nomi as a washed-up 19th-century samurai who must cheer up a depressed prince to avoid the death penalty, it's a misbegotten hybrid of crazy comedy and father-daughter sentimentality which leaves funny-bones untickled and heart-strings untugged.

Domestic returns have been reasonably solid for this third directorial outing from Matsumoto (best known in his homeland as one half of successful TV comic-duo Downtown), exceeding Symbol's returns but falling short of his free-wheelingly bizarre superhero spoof, Big Man Japan (2007). The latter made headlines Stateside earlier this summer when Columbia Pictures and producer Neal Moritz announced plans for a U.S. remake, but this latest entry will do little to boost Matsumoto's international standing and looks mainly set for festivals specializing in way-out or east Asian fare.
Nomi, a near-toothless, goblin-like sixtysomething with zero acting experience, was cast by Matsumoto after appearing on an offbeat TV talent show which the latter presented. Given this unorthodox background, Nomi acquits himself surprisingly well as the title-character, Kanjuro, who threw away his samurai-sword after the death of his wife. He now dazedly wanders the sparsely populated Japanese countryside, his empty scabbard hanging from his belt and his young daughter Tae (Kumada) tagging along. Kanjuro's aimless wanderings attract the attention of three bounty-hunting assassins - their lethal assaults quickly remedied (in the first of the movie's flights of fantasy) by Tae's magical skill with herbal compounds.

A nationally wanted man after going AWOL from the samurai ranks, the world-weary Kanjuro eventually turns himself in to the authorities, who promptly order him to commit ritual public suicide by disembowelment. His only possible salvation is the “30-day feat,” in which the condemned have a month to elicit a smile from the perpetually expressionless young son of the local clan lord. This trial of showbiz skill — an obvious, satirical metaphor for the professional comedian's lot — constitutes the bulk of Scabbard Samurai's excessive running-time: a series of sight-gags, some ludicrously simple, some futuristically elaborate, concocted and realized with the help of Kanjuro's sympathetic jailers and the ever-resourceful Tae.

But just as the grief-traumatized prince proves implacably resistant to Kanjuro's hyperactive inventiveness, the picture's repetitive, strenuous, over-extended pursuit of silly giggles will leave many viewers stony-faced and mystified. The knockabout humor displayed by Matsumoto here is essentially kids' stuff, though the suicide theme and intermittent cartoonish bloodshed renders Scabbard Samurai (a literal translation of the original Japanese title, Saya Zamurai) adult fare. It's a flat-looking film shot on unappealing digital-video, the new technology proving, not for the first time, unsuitable for the evocation of bygone eras. It doesn't help that most of the budget seems to have gone on the outsize clockwork contraptions deployed by Kanjuro during the latter stages of his trial.
The most “special” effect here, however, is a tiny, human one: Kumada's Tae is by far the most dynamic individual on view as the juvenile actress socks over the kid's evolving relationship with her sad-sack pop. Matsumoto himself turns up for a scene-stealing final-reel cameo, tunefully delivering an anachronistically modern-sounding ballad that ranks among the movie's more effective left-field gambits. The charismatic Matsumoto, who was reportedly prevented from playing Kanjuro because of injury, was very much front-and-center throughout both Big Man Japan and Symbol. And, notwithstanding Nomi's hangdog charms, it's perhaps only as a director/writer/star multi-hyphenate that his audacious talents can fully flower.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production companies: Kyoraku Sangyo, Yoshimoto Kangyo
Cast: Takaaki Nomi, Sea Kumada, Itsuji Itao, Tokio Emoto, Ryo, ROLLY, Zennosuke Fukkin
Director/screenwriter: Hitoshi Matsumoto
Producer: Akihiko Okamoto
Executive producer: Hisaya Shiraiwa
Director of photography: Ryuto Kondo
Production designer: Etsuko Aikoh
Costume designer: Masae Miyamoto
Music: Yasuaki Shimizu
Editor: Yoshitaka Honda
Sales: Phantom Film, Tokyo
No rating, 103 minutes