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When I read the description of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s latest (“A boy befriends a time traveling samurai-turned-desert-chef”), I assumed the worst. I’m a Japanese major and I love nearly everything about Japan, including its culture. So, I’d rather invest in a film that tells me something about that world, rather than watch a movie that makes-up a crude, cliche one of zombies, samurai, and robots.
A Boy and His Samurai, as it turns out, is not that film at all. It’s a twee, imaginative story that uses its absurd premise as a means to highlight some interesting views of how Japanese culture has changed over the years. Nakamura (Fish Story, Golden Slumber) achieves this all while telling the emotional story of a family’s growing pains in modern Tokyo. It’s a film that injects you with a happy syringe of movie-going-opiate, giving viewers a sense of being wiser and lighter by its end.
After watching the the morning routine of adorable Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki) and his mom Yusa (played by Rie Tomosaka), we are immediately introduced to a samurai, wandering through the streets of Tokyo, dressed in Edo-period attire. It’s a sort of no-frills, “here’s your setup”-intro that somehow remains charming, despite being a bit too slavish to the original story’s manga roots. After the set-up, Hakamura’s quirky comedic beats and directing bring a buoyancy that makes the story unexpectedly lighthearted yet emotionally complex.
Yusa is commanded by her boss to make a virtual panda avatar on the company’s site walk across the screen and talk. Tomoya has a tough time getting along in school, with most of his attention-span being dedicated to Pokemon and pooping. Within minutes, there is a deep affection built for these characters which makes the ominous introduction of the samurai all the more unsettling. Yusa eventually confronts the samurai in a hilarious scene where the two struggle to understand each other’s predicament. The overbearing politeness and sternness of the samurai can be understood but not without him coming off as a lunatic. In an unlikely turn of events, samurai Kajima (played by Japan TV star Ryo Nishikido) is invited to live with Yusa and volunteers to be Tomoya’s nanny.
After discovering a deep affection for Japanese sweets, Kajima starts to watch TV and learns the way of gourmet pastries. Soon enough, he’s baking fantastic cakes and speaking in a casual manner. Nakamura milks the silly premise for all it’s worth. For a good 30-minutes, the film is on the edge of becoming a bloated, saccharine mess but it never teeters too far from developing its characters and their ongoing trials. Instead, all these cute, throwaway scenes of family life build something greater while depicting an interesting contrast between Edo-period Japan and modern day Tokyo.
The formal bows and language of Kajima are constant reminders of the Japanese language’’s sociolinguistic history and Japan’s traditional values of honor. Yusa embodies the Western-influenced workplace where hard-working women are now given promotions in due time — no longer looked on in society by only the man they are or aren’t attached to (as Kajima does in the beginning). The old samurai grows to love the packaged custard deserts of new Japan, while the modern working mom grows to respect the courage and tradition that the Edo-era samurai embodies. Right in the middle is Tomoya who rises out of his junk-food, Pokemon-lovin’ haze and finds inspiration to become something great in life.
There aren’t many movies that capture the modern spirit of Japan as well as A Boy and His Samurai. The film is a constant reminder of what makes Tokyo one of the great cities of the East. Hakamura brings the city to life, depicting modern day convenience and the romance of Japanese traditions that can be discovered in every pocket of the city. By the end, you feel like you’ve toured Tokyo and experienced it all through the eyes of this unlikely family. More often than not, the film makes the story personal, but, at its end, it draws back and gives you a postcard-perfect vision of Tokyo.
As your eyes swell up during the finale, it’s hard to say if its the sense of lost history or new possibilities that moves you. Hakamura’s ability to seamlessly capture both in the film’s ending is just the cherry on top of this sweet, one-of-a-kind family comedy.