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Japan Cuts Review: The Floating Castle

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There’s inherent drama in stories about impossible odds, and some of the better one involve samurais in Feudal Japan. In Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, it was the title band against a horde of bandits (I think it’s 40 to 50, off the top of my head). In Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, it’s them against 200 well-trained soldiers.

The Floating Castle features even more insurmountable odds: 500 versus 20,000. While based on actual history, the film is more of a riff on history than a recreation of it. There’s action, there’s slapstick, there’s surprising pathos, and there’s intrigue. I think a lot of that comes from the film’s main character, Nagachika Narita, or Lord Bone as the villagers call him, and what actor Mansai Nomura is able to bring to his performance.

[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]

The Floating Castle (Nobou no Shiro | のぼうの城)
Directors: Shinji Higuchi and Isshin Inudo
Rating: TBD
Country: Japan
Release Date: November 2, 2012 (Japan)

Our first glimpse of Lord Bone is out in the rice paddies with the people. As they ready the fields for planting, a child asks Lord Bone to help. It’s tactless, but Lord Bone doesn’t mind. He joins them, and some of the villagers seem uneasy about it.

You see, Lord Bone’s a total buffoon. There’s no rhythm in his step, no grace in his gait, and then there’s mud all over his kimono.

Just looking at Lord Bone brings up all these clownish associations. There’s the mustache that’s empty in the center with little tips out at the ends. It’s like the dimples of facial hair, but not as endearing; the cul-de-sac bald spot of the upper lip. Lord Bone smiles all the time, and his skinny, wiry neck accentuates every gulp and ever action in a way that only cartoons can.

This is the man who will lead a couple hundred people in Oshi Castle, his loving villagers included, into certain doom. More accurately, it’s doom that’s coming to them led by Mitsunari Ishida (Yusuke Kamiji). His army of 20,000 camps and lights fires in the hillsides at night, and it’s an imposing sight that would buckle even the boldest person. At one point after countenancing the enormity of the impending battle, Lord Bone wilts. The inspirational heroism and leadership that would have been in another movie is subverted and played here for laughs.

When Lord Bone decides to stand his ground, it comes as a welcome surprise to his warriors. Part of it plays right into the honor and samurai spirit of Feudal Japan, but I think there’s a kind of romantic/cinematic heroism to such recklessness when it comes to insurmountable odds, whether it’s at Helm’s Deep or The Alamo. Lots of that has to do with the personalities, and around Lord Bone are some compelling people willing to die for the cause. He has two seasoned fighters in Izumi (Tomomitsu Yamaguchi) and Tanba (Koichi Sato). There’s also the eager Sakamaki (Hiroki Narimiya), a promising neophyte who thirsts for combat even though he’s never been in a battle before. Each of the warriors gets a chance to shine. Tanba is a hardened pro, Izumi is like Toshiro Mifune on crank, and Tanba is just what you’d expect out of a rookie.

The Floating Castle slowly ennobles Lord Bone. Part of it has to do with the film’s plot and how it depicts the siege of the castle and what comes after the initial attack. The film can’t outdo Kurosawa’s Ran for sheer scope and elegance, and it doesn’t reach the levels of excess and brutality of Miike’s 13 Assassins either. What The Floating Castle does offer on the battlefield up are some genuinely rousing bits of adventure played in an exaggerated way.

Nomura’s performance winds up being the real anchor of the film rather than the promise of sweeping martial carnage. We see little changes in Lord Bone’s demeanor that hint at some greater cunning that’s behind the bad mustache and the constant smile. He’s a charismatic leader and someone well loved among his subjects. It’s a quality he uses to his advantage, both when he intends to and when he doesn’t. So on the one hand there’s the incompetent Lord Bone, the in-over-his-head imp who’s left in a leadership position he shouldn’t be in. On the other hand, maybe he was ready for this in an unorthodox way.

At 144 minutes, The Floating Castle runs a little long, though that’s becoming the case with a lot of films with large set pieces. While the scope is epic in some ways, it doesn’t feel like the film has the material to justify this mini-epic run time. There’s a mostly unrealized love triangle in there, and the little intrigues on Ishida’s side of the battle field don’t seem quite as intriguing as the plight of Oshi Castle or its people. But to that, I wonder if I’d have the same feelings about about Lord Bone if he wasn’t allowed to unfold slowly the way he does, or if his plans weren’t allowed to come to fruition in the manner that they do.

If people go into The Floating Castle looking for a series of pitched battles, they’ll wind up pretty disappointed. The Toyotomi forces decide that instead of a traditional war, they’ll instead ruin the morale of Oshi Castle. Their act is of Biblical proportions, and that’s all I can say without spoiling it. I don’t know if it was necessarily true to history, but it’s a great piece of insane (bordering on totally silly) spectacle on par with the disaster films of the 1970s. The CG effects of the primary battle and this other form of attack — the two blockbuster set pieces of the film — are serviceable. Some shots look better than others, and in the case of the second barrage on the castle, I think the CG-ness really shows despite the actors doing their best to sell the sheer dread of the moment.

Instead of a thrill-a-minute, action-packed chambara war movie, it helps to go into The Floating Castle expecting an eccentric period piece rooted in an action-figure/army man/sandbox version of history. What ties it all together, fittingly, is Lord Bone. Not only was he charismatic enough to get his people to fight in a battle that seems unwinnable, he was charismatic enough to make me care even when the film felt like it outstayed its welcome.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.