Tajomaru: Avenging Blade
Film: Tajomaru: Avenging Blade
Release date: 31st January 2011
Running time: 90 mins
Director: Hiroyuki Nakano
Starring: Shun Oguri, Yuki Shibamoto, Kenichi Hagiwara, Kei Tanaka, Kyôsuke Yabe
The name ‘Tajomaru’ will ring bells with cinephiles, it being the character played by the great Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Director Hiroyuki Nakana resurrects the character, and fleshes out a backstory that leads into the earlier film’s narrative. But are the results worthy of one of cinema’s great masters?
Feudal Japan. Naomitsu, second son of the house of Hatakeyama, strikes up a friendship with young thief Sakuramaru, who he rescues from punishment and appoints as his servant. Free of the future of responsibilities lying on the shoulders of his older brother, first son Nobutsana, Naomitsu wants nothing more than a simple life with his friends…and maybe, in the future, romance with Princess Ako-hime.
But later in life, tensions rise, threatening to rip apart the bonds of the lifelong friends. Under pressure from the Shogun, Nobutsana (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) pushes his claim to marry Ako-hime (Yuki Shibamoto), much to Naomitsu’s (Shun Oguri) chagrin. Then everything Naomitsu knows is shredded by the betrayal of Sakuramaru (Kei Tanaka), who – with the backing of the Shogun – plans to kill the brothers and claim their family’s gold.
Banished into the mountains, the young lovers’ path crosses with that of the mysterious bandit, Tajomaru (Hiroki Matsukata), where they discover that their lives are about to take a darker turn…
In constructing a brand new film to serve as back-story for one of Akira Kurosawa’s landmark works, director Hiroyuki Nakano sets himself rather a high bar to clear. Indeed, the challenge is comparable to a high-jumper attempting to beat a pole-vaulter, without the pole. Film industry legend says that Rashomon was the reason for the creation of a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and brought Japanese cinema to the world. The film’s very title has long since been adopted by the English language to describe the scenario of conflicting testimonies regarding the same event. Attempting to add to its legend and mythology is a bold move for any filmmaker to make, not least because, in Rashomon, Kurosawa showed a master’s understanding of the very language of cinema. It is not just an enthralling movie that warrants constant revisiting – it was a game-changer in its day. Its manipulation of classic film narrative structure was as bold and groundbreaking as Citizen Kane almost a decade before, and its influence resonates in such diverse works as Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects and Zhang Yimou’s Hero, both proud spiritual descendants of Rashomon.
Kurosawa produced an epic in less than ninety minutes. Nakano’s film, in contrast, is over two hours long and has neither the scope nor the depth of the earlier work. Conversations move sluggishly, and character motivations are often frustratingly oblique. Consider Sakaramaru’s initial playing-off of the Hatakeyama brothers, regarding their duelling affections for Ako-hime. Off the back of a rather sweet prologue played by child actors depicting youthful versions of the central quartet, Sakaramaru’s character ‘turn’ is unexpected and shocking, but perhaps not in the way the filmmakers intend. We have no reason to suspect that, in the intervening years, the Hatakeyama brothers – in particular Naomitsu – would have done anything to warrant the manipulation (and eventual treachery) of their adoptive brother, nor does it seem credible that the bedraggled, desperately hungry boy of the prologue sequence was simply biding his time until he double-crossed them for his own gain. What should be an engrossing opening act instead leaves the viewer cold, and not infrequently confused.
Because of the lack of depth to the characters as written, the simmering tensions never feel on the verge of boiling over or exploding. When they do, as in Naomitsu’s storming of the compound looking for his treacherous (that being an unfortunately catch-all adjective for almost every character in this film) brother, the action sequences are stilted and unimaginative. Likewise, the drama never really takes hold. The movement of the plot is often as staid, stately and stilted as the characters’ conduct and interaction – consider a scene early in the film, where Sakumaru coldly announces his plan to kill a secondary character who, rather than run or back away, chooses to calmly ask why. With a cast of characters whose contradictions are simply contradictions, rather than complexities, and who exist within a historical/political context that is neither fully defined (thereby inhibiting the audience from understanding and caring about the stakes), Tajomaru never escapes the shackles of its own irrelevance. Indeed, one wonders if the claiming of Rashomon as a cinematic ancestor is little more than an opportunistic attempt to elevate a film that sits awkwardly between genres – neither hard-hitting samurai epic or insightful human drama.
No discussion of Tajomaru can completely escape the comparison to Rashomon, not once it introduces the character of Tajomaru, the famous and feared bandit. While the piquing of audience interest may have more to do with the basic fascination factor of its ties to Rashomon, the reveal of the titular character does shore up what had previously been a scattered, wayward narrative. Disappointingly, the initial fight scene between Tajomaru and Naomitsu is clumsily staged, with a distractingly modern, electronic-sounding score in place of the expected traditional orchestral soundtrack – a rather bewildering and inexplicable anachronism. The swords are sharp, but the action is blunt – a problem that persists throughout the rest of the film.
Tajomaru is easy on the eye, even if its sets and production design aren’t quite as grand as one might have expected from a historical epic (indicative, presumably, of a limited budget); and the actors work hard to bring life to a script that offers little in the way of character emotion beyond varying levels of intensity, jealousy and anger. It’s clear the filmmakers intend to create a passionate epic, but with the story making a point of stopping by so many familiar and traditional signposts, audience engagement is limited. Even an intriguing subplot involving the sexual abuse of Sakuramaru at the hands of the Shogun, within the confines of otherwise clichéd storytelling, is nothing more than a way for the filmmakers to ensure that audience sympathy was directed where they intended. It aims for so much – grand, epic, passionate and powerful – but in the end falls sadly short. Ultimately, Tajomaru never seems quite sure of its own identity, and is more a mixed bag of curious intentions than any sort of cohesive whole.
Hardly a Japanese Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. An interesting proposition for cinema lovers, but an ultimately unnecessary appendix to the Rashomon legacy. Lacking its own identity, and fighting for shelf-space with superior movies in the same genre, it is difficult to see to whom, exactly, Tajomaru will appeal.
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