Review: TATARA SAMURAI Forges Purpose From Imperfection

Some of the hardest parts of growing up in life tend to arise with sacrifice in some capacity. For Nishikori Yoshinari's new feature film, Tatara Samurai, there's no better time for such a stark narrative to take shape than during the Sengoku era of Japanese history - much like any era in our world's history as war has shaped things, and consequently, people. For this, what we get in Nishikori's latest brings forth a detailed spectrum of a feudal time within a coming-of-age tale that foreshadows timeless messages and lessons through considerably tumultuous circumstances.

One such person at the center of it all here is Gosuke (Aoyagi Sho), the son of a family of steel makers residing in Tatara, a small, reclusive mountain village in Izumo, Japan that has become popular for its ritualistic and legendary creation of a rare brand of steel with a technique passed from generation to generation. Despite his albeit peaceful life with wife, Okuni (Ishii Anna), and father Yasuke (Komoto Masahiro) who just inherited the title of Murage from his father, Kisuke (Takahashi Choei), Gosuke remains burdended by the idea of feeling too weak to help defend his village from future attacks, a feeling he has carried since childhood apart from his much more skilled counterparts, Shinpei (Kobayashi Naoki), Heijiro (Toyohara Kosuke) and Shinnosuke (Akira) the latter who now leads his own warrior clan.

When tragedy strikes his village once more, Gosuke sees what he believes is an opportunity to become as strong as he thinks he can be for the sake of his village; A chance meeting with a merchant named Sobei (Sasano Takashi) implores Gosuke to journey away from his village, bringing a piece of his village's precious and renowned steel as his only barganing chip with another merchant named Yohei (Tsugawa Masahiko) who endorses him for battlefield readiness in service of Lord Nobunaga Oda. Little, and emphatically, does Gosuke know that this would be the first of a trepidating experience that stretches far beyond his own reach and understanding of an ever-changing world beyond his simplistic village ideals. The question, however, remains if whether or not he can realize the many truths already being foretold by his peers before it is too late to do the right thing.

It really is a satisfying thing to see this film approach its subjects through such a scope as the one Nishikori implents. This is my introduction to his work right here, and it's very concentrated, toned and rich in its stunning visuals and depictions as the film immerses you into the quiet, mechanical servitude that encapsulates the spirit of the titular village; I'm reminded of some of the martial arts documentaries I've seen, mostly of a Japanese nature as someone who was once a student of Shotokan Karate, and it's gratifying that Nishikori shared this same enthusiasm and drive enough to explore it further for the love of cinema, and the subliminal messaging therin with the characters we meet and the events that occur.

The film revolves its core narrative of self-discovery on a number of building blocks, one of which addresses many of the occupations the film's supporting background characters engage in from day-to-day life, with steelmaking among the list. Jobs that are tantamount with everyday living like farming, cooking, cleaning and craftsmanship to coalmaking, boating, blacksmithing and performance art, are a moral reflection surrounding our protagonist who only continues to see what he wants to whilst in search of himself and the means to protect his people and blind to a lot of what all of it entails and means behind the veil. His enriched friendships with Heijiro, Shinpei and Shinnosuke have contributed to this aspect of his character even as they had it in their minds that Gosuke would hopefully stay the path of Murage, save for his own youthful curiosity.

Part of the foreshadowing of the dark cloud that lurks in the village's wake and that of Gosuke's path is further aided by the film's referral to the villages primarily wiser elders; The inability of man to create everything is just one of the existential platitudes echoed from actor Shinagawa Toru who plays one of the principal auspices of the film next to that of actress Naraoka Tomoko who stars as Gosuke's grandmother next to that of actor Denden and Yamamoto Kei, the latter who plays Chochiro, the mayor of Tatara village. Their instrumentation here extends even further to that of actor Otoo Takumi who plays Seikichi, a lowly subordinate under Nobunaga assigned to look after Gosuke.

The film's wartime backdrop along with the politics serves as a major highlight of  the quandry that unwittingly pits Gosuke as nothing more than a pawn in someone else's game, something that further perpetuates one other brilliant paradigm about the film's existentialism - What makes a man a "man" and defines "strength"; The test of one's mettle, much like the forging of a sword from its mineral origins into a dauntless compound to molded and shaped through intense heat and fire, pressure and impact. Such a process, much like growth, never happens overnight, and with respite pacing in the midst of upheaval and loss, never comes with ease. For Gosuke, it does come with an air of misdirection on the part of Yohei and Sobei, inducing ample intrigue with even more questions for which the answers are bound to be even more of a challenge for our budding reluctant steel heir.

The two-hour version of Tatara Samurai might garner a few snips to stave off some lagging for much of the runtime, but you're definitely guaranteed a proper treatment of the aesthetic that comes with a film like this. I don't know much about Exile Tribe or their subgroups apart from my own interest of its recent output of HiGH&LOW action drama serial programs and feature film saga, or the E-girls for that matter, but you can gather as much that for the most part, we have a well-rounded cast of dramatic talent on our hands, many of whom are able to meet the physically tasking demands of an epic movie with a good amount of swordplay to be expected. Certainly, Kobayashi and Akira fit well in that regard in their scenes, especially the latter who faces actor Sugata Shun (The Last Samurai, Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear) in the third act. The cinematography trudges modestly on the Greengrass approach but thankfully avoids going full-on mindless on the lensing, or editing for that matter. The choreography services adequately with practical shots rather than the expected affect as some of the deaths that occur are noticably bloodless and otherwise suggestive.

Aoyagi's own performance doesn't stretch really far in some instances while he does seem to illuminate in some scenes more palpably, and as equally needed in the few poignant moments he shares with Ishii. It's exemplary of Nishikori's handling of a film of this scale and sizes, offering a well-balanced period drama with a vast, epic scope that maintains its focus on character given the existential developments that accumulate along the way. You don't immediately learn much from the subplot about how it all adds up, but you do get a sense of what is happening going into the second act. Actress Tabata Tomoko is instrumental here in the role of Okyo who appears seldom in the film, and mostly where it counts as the film seuges onward in its delivery in both compelling drama and cohesive storytelling.

For this reason, however, what might get lost in the narrative is the establishment of who is on who's side if you're not a history buff or you're too immersed into Gosuke's story. Other than that, what you're left with by the end of the day is a film that does a lot of what it needs to with a serviceable script, gripping characters led by a modestly strong lead, beautiful scoring and set pieces that bring a refining sense and love of cinema that moviegoers can appreciate. Having garnered several awards and exclusive audiences at festivals and events around the world since late last year, it's easy to see why Tatara Samurai is the artistic hit that it has come to be, and on the eve, no less, in just short of two weeks in Japan.

Eleven Arts is slated to follow suit with its own rollout of the film on June 2 in North America.


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