Scabbard Samurai-Saya-zamurai (2010)
Directed by: Hitoshi Matsumoto | 103 minutes | comedy | Actors: Jun Kunimura, Masatô Ibu, Itsuji Itao, Ryô, Tokio Emoto, Rolly, Satoru Jitsunashi, Sea Kumada, Takaaki Nomi, Motohiro Toriki, Kazuo Takehara, Yoshinobu Shigemura, Akinori Ando, Takumi Matsumoto, Hiroshi Noguchi
The director of ‘Scabbard Samurai’ (2011), Hitoshi Matsumoto, is not a well-known name in Europe, but in Japan he is a major media personality comparable to Takeshi Kitano. In 1982, he debuted with Masatoshi Hamada as the comedy duo Downtown, one of Japan’s most popular and influential comedy acts. Currently, in addition to stand-up comics, he is also a director, writer, television host and can be seen in commercials. Everything Matsumoto makes is greedily devoured in Japan and it goes without saying that the market here is also ready for the genius of Matsumoto, or at least that specific part of the film buffs who regularly dare to look beyond Hollywood.
And is that hope justified? That could be disappointing for ‘Scabbard Samurai’. The story is about Samurai Nomi who, after the death of his wife, chooses not to wear a sword anymore and thereby violates the code of honor of the Samurai and his clan. Nomi has been declared an outlaw and is hot on his heels by a number of figures who are a cross between an assassin and a bounty hunter. Meanwhile, his daughter tries to keep up with him when Nomi once again flees into the woods after a failed attack on his life. The attackers are introduced in writing with their name and nickname which is usually an indication that they and their “typical personal trait” have a key role in the plot. However, this is not the case here. That one is a chiropractor killer is just a joke: he “breaks” Nomi’s neck, but Nomi is alive and well again in the next scene. Nomi also survives an attack with a knife in the back and a bullet in the head. In the film’s sequel, these characters mainly function to provide some commentary on the twists and turns in the story. Funny and surprising, but it’s not a strong opener.
Once Nomi is captured, the story follows a Sheherazade-esque narrative in which Nomi is given 28 days to make the depressed son of the chief of a Samurai clan laugh; every day he gets one chance to make a successful joke. When the 28 days are up and the boy hasn’t laughed once, Nomi is forced to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide.
‘Scabbard Samurai’ now changes the apparent narrative form of the opening scenes, to a format that seems ideally suited to a director who has his roots as a prankster and who is more used to a sketch-like approach without too much cinematic frills. What follows are 28 jokes that are hopefully fun enough to make the son, but at least the viewer, laugh. And whether ‘Scabbard Samurai’ succeeds in this is not only a matter of taste, but also very much a matter of culture.
This is not to say that Japanese humor is incomprehensible to the Dutch viewer, because there are countless examples that prove the contrary and ‘Scabbard Samurai’ also knows how to hit the mark with mainly verbal jokes now and then. However, many of Nomi’s attempts to save his own life fall into the category of gloating, a genre that is especially popular on Japanese television as a way of letting shabby Japanese businessmen blow off some steam; and what could be more fun than taunting someone by poking him in the nose with a pointed cloth or making him run headfirst through some cardboard walls?
But maybe Hitoshi Matsumoto doesn’t want to be funny at all here, maybe the completely lethargic boy is the figurative image of the dull viewer for those who can’t do it extreme enough. It could explain the unconventional ending, but that doesn’t make the film any more successful. As the prototype sucker, Nomi gets through a series of actions that are sometimes very bland, sometimes humiliating and sometimes painful. Matsumoto seems to find the prank in which Nomi is shot by a cannon and ends up flat on the water. He makes Nomi’s painful landing come into view several times, as if we can’t get enough of it. In the end Nomi’s last “joke” manages to stir the boy in a surprising way, but it is going too far to consider this reference to bygone codes of honor from pre-modern times as original and astute.
‘Scabbard Samurai’ is worth watching, but it doesn’t really satisfy as a simple thigh-beater, as a thoughtful arthouse film, or a combination of the two.