Scabbard Samurai AKA Saya-Zamurai [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - Japan - Yoshimoto R&C
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (22nd November 2015).
The Film

“Scabbard Samurai” AKA “Saya-Zamurai”

A weary and weak looking samurai named Kanjuro Nomi (played by Takaaki Nomi) is wanders with a scabbard on his waistside, but without a samurai sword inside it. A few steps behind him is his young 9 year old daughter Tae (played by Sea Kumada), following his footsteps and not walking alongside him. Along his aimless journey, Nomi encounters and escapes from 3 assassins out to capture him: Oryu (played by Ryo), who uses her musical instrument the shamisen for deadly purposes, Pakyun (played by Rolly) who always used two pistols, and GoriGori (played by Zennosuke Fukkin) who uses his hands for crushing bones. Nomi is a wanted man for desertion from his lord and is finally captured not by the assassins, but by the Lord’s men. The Lord (played by Jun Kunimura) has an unusual order for punishment for Nomi: The prisoner has 30 days to make the Lord’s son laugh. If the lord laughs within 30 days, Nomi would be pardoned. But if not, Nomi must commit Seppuku, ritual suicide. 30 days, 30 gags.

The Lord’s son (played by Shuma Shimizu) has not shown any emotion since the death of his mother and nothing seems to move him at all. On the first day, Nomi puts 2 oranges over his eyes and a piece of apple in his mouth to make a funny looking face. But there is no reaction from the son, making the Lord’s councilor (played by Masatou Ibu) yell, “Sentenced to seppuku!” The second day he slurps an udon noodle through his nose. “Sentenced to seppuku!” yells the councilor. The third day he paints a face on his stomach and does a dance. “Sentenced to seppuku!”

Tae thinks her father is not doing enough and is embarrassed by him: for running away from his duty as a samurai, not being able to take care of her, not carrying a sword, and now for not doing well at his duty to make the Lord’s son laugh. She tries to give some advice and thinks of other gags that could work. She also asks advice from the two prison guards (played by Itsuji Itao and Tokio Emoto) who also think of ideas for Nomi to perform. Silly gags like making Nomi do sumo by himself with an invisible partner or some dangerous gags like making Nomi jump through a straw basket on fire and taking two snakes and tying them together while trying not to get bitten are thought of by Tae and the guards. But even with these crazy stunts, the councilor yells “Sentenced to seppuku!”

The guards and Tae come up with a crazy idea of a human cannonball for Nomi: To fire him from a giant cannon into the sea. For the showing, the townsfolk are invited to watch and all the people equally laugh at and cheer for Nomi. Although the Lord himself gives a little chuckle seeing the human cannonball, it does not move the son at all, leading to another merciful defeat with the usual yelled statement by the councilor. But this time, the townspeople become continuous spectators, and instead of looking at Nomi in disgust as a prisoner in the first days, they become fans and start to cheer for him daily. Questions such as Nomi decision to not carry a sword anymore, the nature of what happened with Tae’s mother and his personal fall from grace are answered throughout flashbacks. But will he somehow reach out and make the young boy crack a smile, or will he die trying?

“Scabbard Samurai” was the third film directed by comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, who previously directed the Kaiju homage/parody film “Big Man Japan” and the weirdly abstract and silly “Symbol”. Matsumoto is one half of the comedy duo Downtown with Masatoshi Hamada, and they have been one of the most popular Japanese comedy duos since the late 1980’s, and still continue to be incredibly popular, having multiple TV series as hosts, which is incredible since the number of comedy duos that stick together and stay successful is only a handful while the ones that fade away are the norm. When big film fan and critic Matsumoto decided to get into the directing game, there was a lot of hype and pressure from the media and public, but the films “Big Man Japan” and “Symbol” were met with mixed reviews and confusing reactions. The films were so different from the usual comedy style of Downtown that people didn’t know what to make of it, though international critics were a little more favorable since there was no preconception. It should be noted it closely mirrors the directorial career of Takeshi Kitano, whose films were so radically different from his comedy antics on television, they divided audiences in Japan, but was and still is a critical darling internationally. For “Scabbard Samurai”, the story is told in a much more conventional way compared to his first two films and also compared to his subsequent film “R100”.

Having to think of new gags, new jokes, new ways of making people laugh is something that comedians know can make or break them. For comedians that have one catchphrase or one joke that make them famous, it is great for the short run but for longevity, thinking of a something new is incredibly difficult, and that is why so many comedians in Japan fade away so quickly. It’s almost a miracle that Downtown has been consistently and continuously popular for over 25 years in Japan. The film parallels that of the lives of comedians in Japan in which thinking of and performing a new gag is a life or death situation. If people like it, it can change their lives. If audiences don’t react, it’s a certain death to their career. The film makes an important point that it is not about just doing something to make a person laugh. A person could say a funny joke with a punchline but who is going to remember who actually said the “When did the chicken cross the road....” joke? There must be a more personal connection to make someone laugh, as it is not about laughing at something, but it is about laughing together with someone. In the film’s first half, it is not a laugh fest, but almost a bunch of smirks and giggles seeing a middle aged man embarrassing himself. But later on when the audience starts to really feel for the character and also see the townsfolk audience being active supporters, you certainly feel a more emotional connection to the characters, which may bring some unexpected joyful smiles and also some sad tears.

But even as conventional as “Scabbard Samurai” seems, it was very unconventionally shot in terms of how the main actor was treated. Takaaki Nomi was not an actor but was discovered by Matsumoto while making a TV documentary about working people, and Nomi was unintentionally hilarious to Matsumoto’s eyes. Not just in the way he looked with his missing teeth and ugly-looking pitiful face, but the way he spoke, the way he presented himself was like comedy gold. For “Scabbard Samurai”, Nomi was not handed the script. He was not told who the director was. He was not even told it was a movie! He said he thought it was for some video piece for a TV show or something for the Internet. Matsumoto told all the other actors NOT to interact with Nomi offstage and NOT to discuss anything with him. The film was shot almost entirely chronologically, and every day Nomi was given an outline of what to do for the day including the gag for the day and the lines of dialogue for the days with little rehearsal. Matsumoto never interacted with Nomi and did all the direction from a monitor room and only the assistants interacted giving direction to Nomi on set. All other actors had full time for rehearsals and table reads. Why this was done? Matsumoto said he didn’t want to put huge pressure on a first-timer and made it something tangibly easy for Nomi to get around his head, and have the supporting actors who had acting experience to fill in the gaps.

Though this was not kept for the entire shot, as eventually after halfway through the shooting, Matsumoto introduced himself to Nomi who was surprised that it was someone of that caliber directing and that Matsumoto specifically chose Nomi for the part. Comparing the first half of the film (in which Nomi didn’t know he was in a film or being directed by Matsumoto) and the second half of the film (in which he knew this was a feature film directed by Matsumoto and he was the lead role) a sign of confidence and strength can suddenly be seen in his performance. Unintentional method acting? What is shown is an exceptional example of character growth and development, and considering the very little amount of dialogue actually spoken, it really is all about the unusual directing of Matsumoto towards Nomi.

The supporting actors also must be mentioned. The daughter Tae played by Sea Kumada gives an exceptionally great performance making you forget her age of only 9 years old. Her supporting character literally supports the father character, and the way she delivers her lines in the introductions to the father’s challenging daily gags or the way she addresses her father’s weakness in anger are truly great. The three assassins played by actress and model Ryo, glam rock singer Rolly, and voice actor Zennosuke Fukkin, are there for mostly comic relief with their over the top violent style, though their characters have very little necessity. If they had cut those three characters out, it would not have affected the plot at all. But regardless of that minor point, Matsumoto has made an incredibly touching film about the art of laughter in backdrop of a period samurai film.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray which can be played back on any Blu-ray player worldwide.

Video

Yoshimoto R&C’s Blu-ray presents the film in the theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec. Colors look wonderful, from the dirty brown clothes of Nomi to the beautifully colorful clothes of Tae, as well as the period sets and environment look great. Depth is clear and there are no problems to speak of. Top notch all around.

Audio

Two audio tracks are offered:

Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Japanese LPCM 2.0 stereo


The 5.1 track is not exactly a lively one as this is not a film that plays with a lot of sound. There are a lot of quiet moments with absolutely no dialogue, no music, and no sound effects to play off the laughter of the audience reactions instead. But sounds like the human cannon, the mechanical rocking horse creaking, the minimal score, and the occasional taiko drum come into effect with the surrounds. Dialogue is almost always centered. The 2.0 track also sounds fine but if you have lossless 5.1 playback capability, the 5.1 is the way to go.

There are no subtitles for the main feature, which is a big detractor for non-Japanese audiences. Considering this is currently the only known Blu-ray edition of the film worldwide, it is a shame that Yoshimoto R&C did not include any subtitles for foreign markets. Interestingly the film credits lists Australian born Japan based comedian Chad Mullane as the English subtitles supervisor, who has helped with all of Matsumoto’s films English translations, yet they don’t appear here on the disc. Although Yoshimoto R&C corrected that for their Blu-ray release of Matsumoto’s subsequent film, “R100”, by adding optional English subtitles.

Extras

Like the main feature, the extras are in Japanese and are not subtitled.

"Making Of" featurette (22:04)
Featuring interviews with the cast and crew during the making of the film, it also showcases how Matsumoto kept it a secret from the actor Nomi about the nature of the production.
in 1080p, 1.78:1, in Japanese

"Campaign" featurette (16:08)
From premiere footage in Japan, Switzerland, featuring stage greetings by Matsumoto and the main cast, it also features Nomi greeting a mass audience for the first time in his life and also happens to wear a suit for the first time.
in 1080p, 1.78:1, in Japanese

Deleted Scenes (11:29)
The deleted scenes are of the guards giving additional gags for Nomi to do that didn’t make the final cut. These include Nomi trying to climb in a boiling hot bath, removing glasses without his hands, eating hot food, and more. Also the extended version of Nomi tying two snakes together, which was done for real.
in 1080p, 1.78:1, in Japanese

12 page foldout press sheet
Includes a synopsis, cast & crew information, and an interview with director Hitoshi Matsumoto.
in Japanese

200 page book
Chronicling the 4 month making of the film, the book has detailed transcripts of meetings between Matsumoto and the staff from the preproduction to the production of the film.
in Japanese

The extras are fine but a little more in depth features such as a chronicle of Nomi’s life before the film such as an interview, or a more in depth interview with Matsumoto or commentary would have been great. Though it should be noted that Matsumoto has never done a commentary track. Also, the 200 page book seems like a nice edition, but I would have rather had audio clips or possibly video of those meetings rather than in book form, as the sounds of laughter or reactions are not fully realized in just the transcripts.

Packaging

The disc is packaged in a black standard size thin Blu-ray keep case featuring front cover artwork with Nomi and Tae in the opening scene in the forest, with the 12 page fold out press sheet inside. The keep case is housed in a cardboard case which also holds the 200 page book. The book is about the same thickness and size as the keep case. The outer case artwork is that of the “human calligraphy” scene.

Overall

“Scabbard Samurai”, Hitoshi Matsumoto’s most conventional film is a highlight in his career, one that has builds emotional depth and gives laughs both uncomfortably and genuinely. Nomi’s “real” performance and Kumada’s supporting performance are both true highlights that are rare in conventional comedy films. It’s a shame that the Japanese Blu-ray, is not English friendly, so it will deter international audiences from making a purchase. Currently there are DVD versions available outside of Japan in France, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, with the Dutch release being the only one with optional English subtitles (but not in our database as we don’t have concrete specs). International distributors quickly picked up Matsumoto’s other “weirder” films quickly, but left this one for future reassessment. Highly recommended.

The Film: A- Video: A+ Audio: B+ Extras: B- Overall: B+

 


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