Would-be samurai Kanjuro Nomi (Takaaki Nomi) has landed himself in quite a predicament. Wanted for desertion by the government, and pursued by a trio of variously skilled assassins, he nonetheless silently carries on, always protecting his wily young daughter Tae (Sea Kumada). Rendered silent by grief since the death of his wife, he no longer carries a sword – only its hilt. When he’s finally brought to justice, the local clan head dispenses his usual, and particularly cruel punishment: Kanjuro has one opportunity a day, for the next thirty days, to inspire a smile on the face of the clan leader’s son, who has been practically catatonic since the loss of his mother.
The latest comic hybrid from popular Japanese director Hitoshi Matsumoto (Big Man Japan, Symbol), Scabbard Samurai is an odd beast, equal parts slapstick comedy, existentialist fable, and samurai ethics lesson. In terms of the film’s humor, Matsumoto is as apt to deploy a quiet, charming visual gag (the sight of Kanjuro’s face covered in sliced fruit, his meager first-day attempt) as an elaborate comic set-piece. Through it all, Kanjuro remains both doggedly near-silent in the film samurai tradition, but in the service of a man devoted to entirely silly acts. The juxtaposition is oddly charming, and that makes it all the more jarring when the film takes another turn in its final act, aiming for a strange blend of samurai-drama pathos and family-film cheerfulness.
That any of this works at all is largely down to Nomi, who utters little dialogue throughout the film but has charisma and comic energy to spare, combining straight-faced sincerity with a willingness to physically degrade himself at every opportunity in order to elicit a reaction of any kind from the perpetually stoic boy. Young Sea Kumada proves just as inexhaustible, egging on her dreary fatherat every turn, even daring him to just skip straight to the clan-ordained seppuku and spare everyone the indignity. While the film’s closing minutes of sober reflection (followed by release) don’t feel entirely earned, Scabbard proves that Matsumoto isn’t playing by genre or geographical rules.
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