[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
Both Big Man Japan and Symbol have been on my to-watch list for a while now. They’re both by comedian-turned-director Hitoshi Matsumoto. Scabbard Samurai is his latest film, so I’m starting backwards. In a way I’m glad this was the first of his films I’ve seen — I had no expectations or preconceptions; I could take this slapstick “samurai” film as is.
I put samurai in quotation marks because the title character of the film doesn’t wield a sword or slash away at anything. He carries an empty scabbard like a clown. With his mangy facial hair and Coke-bottle glasses, he looks less like Toshiro Mifune and more like Toshiro Mifune’s accountant.
His task still has high and heroic stakes: make ’em laugh, or die trying.
Scabbard Samurai (Saya Zamurai | さや侍)
Director: Hitoshi Matsumoto
It’s such a simple conceit. Captured by a local feudal lord, masterless samurai Nomi Kanjuro (Takaaki Nomi) has 30 days and 30 attempts to make a boy prince smile. It’s known as “the 30-day feat.” The young prince has been in a dour, catatonic state since the death of his mother. At least a dozen other prisoners have attempted the 30-day feat and failed; the penalty for failure is seppuku. Nomi’s daughter Tae (Sea Kumada) goes into jail with him to coach him along from gag to gag. Hilarity ensues, multiple times.
What’s set up in Scabbard Samurai is a pattern story. There are a set number of tries, a set number of gags. This can be deadly if you simply stick to the pattern, so the interest in pattern stories comes from variations: the way the set pieces become more elaborate, the shotcuts and shorthands between jokes, the delivery and presentation of the joke, and then the the sudden curveball or knuckleball that undermines the pattern. Without this sense of a swerve, the pattern tends to get stale.
So for variety in Scabbard Samurai, Nomi’s jokes vary from simple to “flamboyant and refreshingly stupid.” Each joke is hilarious in its own way; many of them are funnier in concept than in execution, though some become funny from the unfunniness of the gag. I don’t want to give too much away since there are some great moments of visual comedy throughout this movie, but certain contraptions are involved, and it left me wondering, with a broad smile on my face, “Where the hell did that come from?”
Flamboyant and refreshingly stupid is a good description for the film, and I mean that kindly. The characters are silly in an endearing kind of way. Nomi is so timid and yet determined, and maybe has seven good teeth left. He speaks apologetically to everyone, like he’s troubling them too much no matter what — a sad hobo clown in samurai garb. Yet you sense a certain underlying despair to his posture that explains who he is as a person. Tae is almost like a manager or an agent that’s helping a comedian write good material. She wants her dad to succeed, and hopes he can exhibit some of his former samurai spirit in the form of a jester.
Tae’s helped by two of the lord’s prison guards, who are a classic comic duo: a slack-jawed bumbler and a straight man. There are also three bounty hunters, like caricatures pulled out of past samurai films and made flamboyant, stupid, and refreshing. It’s hard not to like the broad and strange characters of Scabbard Samurai. Even the eccentric lord who sets Nomi on this task has a sympathetic quality to him as the film continues through its pattern. Somehow the human traits peek out through the absurdity of the conceit, or, and I think this is more accurate, the absurdity of the conceit heightens the humanity of broad characters.
In most good jokes there is a seed of truth, and in Scabbard Samurai, what underlies the slapstick is a tale of determination. Making this kid laugh may be impossible for anyone to do, but you can be sure that Nomi will try even if it means death. In the opening scenes, he survives shootings, stabbings, and bone snappings, but what may ultimately do him in is an inability to bring joy to others. One of Nomi’s feats involves rushing through a series of walls in standing door frames. It’s an act of idiotic persistence, and really, you could just walk around the door frames if you needed to. But that’s not the point. Sometimes making people laugh takes extra effort, and there is a remarkable dignity in effort even if it reduces you to a buffoon.
Nested in all this seems to be the idea that there’s nothing worse than a comedian dying on stage. It was probably the initial idea that set Matsumoto writing this movie.
Earlier I suggested that pattern stories work best when an unexpected swerve occurs. This swerve or break reveals a subtle, unseen, secondary pattern that was there all along. That’s basically how Scabbard Samurai works. It becomes more than just a collection of gags and winds up being a rather touching story about the effort involved in creating joy.
There are some lines from a William Carlos Williams poem that sort of apply: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die every day / for lack / of what is found / there.” You just need to substitute “jokes” for “poems.” There is something noble about making people laugh, and for some it really is all about life and death. People make a living doing it professionally, others find a reason to live in laughing or making others laugh, and laughter can make the whole business of living and dying more tolerable.
Matsumoto doesn’t go where you expect with Scabbard Samurai, but many jokes are about the swerve and undermining a pattern or an expectation. I was surprised the film went where it did, and then I was unexpectedly moved. Like a lot of good comedians, you can’t anticipate Matsumoto’s punchline or how it’s going to be delivered; like a lot of memorable jokes, Scabbard Samurai says a lot more when you think about it afterwards, just like poetry.