Film Review: Tatara Samurai

A meek blacksmith in a 16th-century Japanese village must decide between staying true to his family calling or picking up the sword in this overlong samurai story.
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There are many moments in Tatara Samurai in which you could swap out the dress, manners and language of 16th-century Japan for the 19th-century American West and have yourself a perfectly rote western. That isn’t to say that much of the dialogue doesn’t hew strictly to the Japanese samurai flick tradition—i.e., the level of speechifying about honor and tradition. But the basics here of an untested youngster, a tranquil village set upon by villainous outsiders, the debate over whether or not to pick up arms, are extremely well-trod territory. So much so, in fact, that it can at times be difficult to pay attention to the specifics of this plodding iteration.

Tatara Samurai opens with an establishing set-piece in which bandits are raiding Tatara village and butchering the residents. Only an intervention by the Amayo samurai in their blood-red armor saves the day. A little boy, Gosuke (Sho Aoyagi), is traumatized by the attack, in which his mother is almost killed. Cutting to the present day, Gosuke is revealed to be the latest in a family line of Murages. These are elite blacksmiths who possess the secret of making the exquisite Tatara steel, legendary for producing the best swords.

Even though Gosuke would seem to be set up to follow in his father’s footsteps to become the next Murage, the roiling conflict in the countryside has him thinking other thoughts. He decides to become a samurai instead. According to the movie, this was an unusual period in Japanese feudal history in which peasants could prove themselves worthy through fighting and be allowed by certain lords to ascend to the samurai caste. Although that kind of class fluidity would seem to be a net positive for the peasant class, the movie’s tight clasping of traditional values almost seems to regard it with as much suspicion as the introduction of firearms, as a gateway to modernism and chaos.

Just this side of clumsy and still troubled by his childhood memories, Gosuke doesn’t last long as a soldier. The rest of the movie involves a fairly convoluted plot in which the village has to try to protect itself and particularly its steel from a swirling cast of threatening outsiders. In the middle of all this, Gosuke struggles to determine his destiny. Writer-director Yoshinari Nishikori dramatizes much of his inner wrestling in particularly undramatic fashion by way of several lengthy passages in which Gosuke and another character stare off into the distance and intone dry lines about fate and the like. In between, Yoshinari layers numerous sequences of the steelsmiths laboring over their forges—scenes that add little to the movie but its already dragging two-hour-plus running time.

Needless to say, everything builds to a final assault on the village in which everyone’s mettle must be proven. But while the fight choreography by Yoshio Iizuka is perfectly passable, Yoshinari’s habit of filming almost everything in fairly static broad shots undercuts moments of growing tension. The movie seems most at home, in fact, when showcasing the traditional lives of these villagers or quietly contemplating the sumptuously forested mountains of their region. By trying to graft a standard samurai-action narrative onto that kind of bucolic setting, Tatara Samurai ends up an uncomfortable hybrid that’s as ungainly and uncomfortable in its two worlds as Gosuke himself.

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