a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Saya Zamurai / さや侍

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Saya Zamurai, Hitoshi Matsumoto’s 3rd feature should put him well ahead in the field as the best contemporary filmmaker in Japan. In Saya Zamurai, Matsumoto has not only crafted a completely zany deconstruction of comedy (his usual theme), but imbued it with a clear critical stance and most importantly, an emotional wallop that lasts long after the house lights go up. The story is simple. We’re introduced to Nomi (Takaaki Nomi ), poor, masterless samurai – he’s thrown away his sword in protest of killing, carrying only the sheath, the “saya” of the film’s title. He’s on the run with his young daughter, Tae (Sea Kumada), hounded by a trio of comic furies (Ryou, ROLLY and Fukkin Zennosuke), out for the money on his head. The nine-year old Sea Kumada shines as the “adult” in this relationship, constantly hectoring her father and becoming a mastermind for his salvation. Soon captured and brought to the local lord (Jun Kunimura) he’s given a deal to save his life. Make the young phlegmatic prince (mourning the death of his mother and sporting the same haircut as Macchan did in Symbol) laugh. Nomi has thirty days to complete his task. If he fails, it’s seppuku time. It’s here where Matsumoto gets to build a heartbreaking tale by piling up the gags, most of which on the surface are not particularly funny, but in aggregate become hilarious, desperate, touching and ultimately, moving. Takaaki Nomi, in his first screen role presents himself as a toothless broken-down sad-sack wearing Harold Lloyd-style Edo period Corbus. He’s the least funny guy on Earth. Starting with simple “impersonations” and dumb slapstick routines in a formal courtyard right out of Kobayashi’s Hara-kiri, he flops monumentally. As they say in the biz, it’s a tough room. The gags, as they may be, get more elaborate – being shot out of a cannon, riding a mechanical bucking bronco (made with perfect period detail, it’s an enchanting anachronism), inventing Yves Klein’s body painting and much more. As the routines get bigger, Nomi becomes a comic sensation, with bigger and bigger crowds crowding to see the man in action – and if he can make the prince laugh. The whole affair gets bigger, sadder and more desperate, even as the prince begins to warm up a little. The denouement brings it all together with intensity – and a huge generosity – testifying to the human spirit and how this sad journey through a life justifies itself. Laying bare an essence of the comedic impulse – it’s what you do to survive and it often isn’t all that funny – Matsumoto makes a compelling case to be conscious of why we laugh, even while we’re chuckling to ourselves and weeping at the same time.

Originally published in EL Magazine, June 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

May 13, 2011 at 2:24 am

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